There’s a saying in New England which states: “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Although a bit tongue-in-cheek, there’s a certain level of truth to it. One minute it could be bright, sunny skies and the next, there’s snow flurries blowing through; wait a few more minutes and you’ll be rummaging through your closet wondering where the heck you put your Hawaiian shirts and flip flops.
However, in January 1919, the residents of Boston witnessed something no meteorologist could’ve predicted: a deadly tsunami of molasses.
The massive wave of sugary goo, which contained more than two-million gallons of the sticky substance, reached heights in excess of twenty five feet and spread through the streets at speeds as high as 35 mph (I’m really questioning the phrase “slow as molasses” right now, but if you’re interested in learning more about the physics behind this incident, I suggest you check out this article). In total, 21 people were killed, 150 people were injured, and significant damage was done to the city’s railroad system, buildings, and streets that fell in the path of the sludgy storm.
So, how did the city of Boston become submerged under molasses? Well, the Purity Distilling Company, a subsidiary of United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA), owned a massive molasses storage tank in the city’s North End. During World War I, the company fermented the dark brown syrup to produce industrial alcohol. Through this process, carbon dioxide was released, increasing the pressure within the container and, a few days before the incident, it was filled to near full-capacity.
And, as I mentioned before, New England weather in unpredictable. That day was unseasonably warm; the sudden increase in temperature accelerated the fermenting process, adding more carbon dioxide and more pressure. In 2014, a new investigation into the incident was launched and discovered that the molasses container was built with walls that were about half as thick as they needed to be and the steel that didn’t contain enough manganese, which caused it to be brittle.
This combination of poor steel, bad design, and excessive pressure proved to be a deadly combination. Around noon, residents of the North End heard a large bang before the giant wall of syrup rolled through the city, tearing buildings from their foundations and flattening them, many people and animals, who were unlucky enough to get caught in the wave either became stuck and required rescuing or drowned.
Following the event, the Boston Post reported: “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form – whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was… Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings – men and women – suffered likewise.”
Survivors, who were covered in the molasses, made their way into local hospitals and were described by the staff as “looking like toffee apples.”
Some of the first rescuers on the scene were cadets from the USS Nantucket, the training vessel for the Massachusetts Nautical School – which later became Massachusetts Maritime Academy – which was docked nearby. These budding seamen ran several blocks, entering the knee-high goop to pull out survivors and cordon the area to keep curious bystanders out. Soon, the Boston Police, Army, Navy, and Red Cross arrived to help with the rescue efforts, tend to the wounded, and help feed and provide warm shelters to the workers, many of whom worked through the night.
It took weeks for the city to clean up the mess. Crews used sand and salt water from a fireboat to absorb and wash away as much of the molasses as possible. Even after the initial cleanup was complete, traces of molasses, which had seeped into the subway platforms and cars, payphone handsets, homes, and street cars, continued to be found. For decades after the incident, it was said that on a warm summer day, the sweet aroma of molasses could still be smelled.
In the wake of the event, residents of Boston brought a class-action lawsuit against the USIA for the accident. Initially, the company claimed the attack was deliberate and the responsibility of terrorists because the industrial alcohol byproduct created from the molasses was used in munitions. However, after three years of hearings, the courts ruled that USIA was responsible and it ultimately was fined more than $600,000 in damages (or $9.37 million in 2020 after being adjusted for inflation.
But the financial restitutions were not the only thing to result from the incident. Many laws were changed to help avoid this kind of accident from happening again.
“Almost all the building construction standards we take for granted today stem from the Great Boston Molasses Flood, including the fact that architects must show their work, that engineers must sign and seal their plans, that building inspectors need to come out and license projects,” said Stephen Puleo, historian and author, in an interview with I Fucking Love Science. “These first started in Boston and Massachusetts and then rippled across the country.”