The Boston Molasses Disaster is one of the most deadly and strange accidents that has ever occurred in the United States. As its name suggests, it involved molasses. You might be wondering how molasses could be deadly or have anything to do with a disaster. Well, it is easy for molasses to be deadly and the release of it to be disastrous when you are talking about roughly 2,300,000 gallons of molasses being released into the streets of Boston in a matter of moments.
In January of 1919, an extremely large tank of molasses loomed above Boston’s North End, across from the wharf. The metal tank was more than 50 ft. tall and contained the equivalent of 26,000,000 pounds of molasses. It had been constructed only four years before and it belonged to a subsidiary of U.S. Industrial Alcohol-the Purity Distilling Company.
At about 12:40 p.m. on January 15, 1919, people in the area of Commercial St., near the molasses tank in the North End, began to hear ominous noises emitting from the tank. There was a dull roar, the sound of a loud metallic tapping and then the sound of metal ripping. The tank had given way. Within seconds, the 2.3 million gallons came rushing out of the tank, creating a 15 ft. high and 160 ft. wide wave of molasses that moved at an estimated 35 miles per hour.
The wave of sticky, sweet, thick sludge was powerful enough to knock down a nearby steel railway support, causing the railway to fall nearly to the street. Mere seconds before, a passenger-filled train had passed the bursting tank. From there, the wave went across Commercial St. to the wharf and eventually inundated two blocks of the North End with molasses. It left many buildings destroyed, some ripped off their foundations. It also left 21 people dead and 150 wounded. Not to mention the animals it killed, particularly horses.
Victims of the Boston Molasses Disaster died or were injured in a truly frightening way. Many drowned in the viscous liquid that flooded their streets so quickly that they had no hope of running. Others were lifted by the wave and smashed against solid objects, or had the solid objects smashed against them. As you can imagine, it was quite a task to clean up the mess, not only the molasses, but the legal mess. Whose fault was it? Why had such a disaster occurred in the first place?
U.S. Industrial Alcohol had been extremely successful in the years leading up to the Boston Molasses Disaster. As such, their facilities had been prime targets for anarchists’ bombs in the recent past. This was the perfect excuse for the company to cling to, in order to avoid liability. They ran with it and claimed they had been bombed. They neglected to mention that they had done a shoddy job of building a tank for that much molasses.
After a thorough investigation, it was found that the tank used to hold the molasses had been leaking since it was built. The company had patched the leaks, but had done nothing to address the structural problems of the tank. They did however; paint the tank brown to camouflage the leaks. The victims and victims families were eventually rewarded 1,000,000 dollars in damages.
Great Molasses Flood, January 14, 1919, massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid#19
Mason, John, The Molasses Flood of January 15, 1919, boomeria.org/physicslectures/molasses.html