Thursday, January 15, 2009

Today is the 90th anniversary of The Great Boston Molasses Flood

It happened on January 15, 1919: a giant vat containing thick heavy molasses exploded, and the heavy goo flooded the streets of Boston's North End, reportedly clocking at 35 miles an hour. In the end, 21 people died from this tragedy and hundreds of people were injured. It took many days and efforts afterwards to clean up the mess and put people's lives back together.

The cause was surmised to be the drastic rise in temperature from the day before: the molasses expanded too quickly and the structure simply couldn't withhold the sudden expansion.


I found the best retelling of the event by Tony Sakalauskas, a free-lance writer, on

"Chunks of metal flew everywhere, piercing into people and buildings for hundreds of feet around. One huge chunk of steel smashed through a massive stone pillar supporting an elevated railroad. A piece of the railway sagged and fell. An alert train driver had his locomotive come to a screeching halt just moments before it would have plunged over.

The disappearance of that huge tank sent out a blast of air that pushed people away. But seconds later a counterblast rushed in to fill the vacuum and pulled them back in.

But most of the damage was caused by the molasses itself. It splashed onto city streets in all directions, speeding as fast as a man could run. The molasses smashed freight cars, plowed over homes and warehouses and drowned both people and animals. A three story house was seen soaring through the air as well as a huge chunk of the shattered vat that landed in a park 200 feet away.

Rescuers were bogged down in the stuff and were scarcely able to move as the molasses sucked the boots right off their feet. Trapped horses couldn't be removed so they had to be shot to death. The black sticky stuff filled cellars for blocks around and it took months for the hydraulic syphons to pump it out. Salt water had to be sprayed on cobblestone streets, homes, and other buildings because fresh water would just wash off the stuff. For months afterwards, wherever people walked, their shoes stuck to the goo. Some people even claimed that on a hot day one could still smell molasses even after thirty years."

The following is a mesmerizing account taken when it was happening: (Courtesy of Bostonist)

"[Boston police patrolman Frank] McManus picked up the call box and began his report to headquarters. A few words into it, he heard a machine-gun-like rat-tat-tat sound and an unearthly grinding and scraping, a bleating that sounded like the wail of a wounded beast. McManus stopped talking, turned, and watched in utter disbelief as the giant molasses tank on the wharf seemed to disintegrate before his eyes, disgorging an enormous wall of thick, dark liquid that blackened the sky and snuffed out the daylight."

I would love seeing a computer-generated re-enactment of the whole event. Who'd have thunk that molasses can do such damage?!

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