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It was unseasonably warm on the afternoon of January 15, 1919. It had gone from 16°F to 43°F overnight. On Commercial Street, in the North End of Boston Harbor, Public Works Department workers and their horses enjoyed an afternoon meal outside, next to the freight sheds of the Massachusetts Railways.

Just a few yards away, the firemen of Fire Boat 31 talked about last year’s Sox victory.  Across the street, Mrs. Clougherty’s cat Peter stretched luxuriously on the back of a truck, basking in the sun as she hung her laundry.  A train on the elevated tracks above Commercial Street trundled by.

Behind the freight sheds loomed an enormous, cylindrical tank that belonged to the United States Alcohol Company.  At the time, Boston was the distilling capital of the country. This ill-fated tank was 5 stories high, 90 feet in diameter, and held over 2 million gallons of crude molasses, shipped from Puerto Rico and used to make rum.

Suddenly the earth shook, followed by the sound of machine-gun fire.  The Great War just ended two months ago.  Were they under attack? It was something more bizarre.  The molasses tank groaned and tore open with a mighty hiss.  The bottom fell out, causing the steel rivets to shoot out like gunfire.

A 15-foot wave of thick molasses crashed down on everything and everyone in its path at two tons per square foot.  A truck was hurled into the harbor.  The firehouse was thrown on its side.  The Public Works Department workers and their horses drowned in the sticky goo, trapped like flies.  Mrs. Clougherty and Peter were crushed to death.

The menacing wave of molasses and debris traveled down Commercial Street at 35 miles an hour, slamming into buildings and crippling the support beams of the elevated subway.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

 

In the end, 21 people were killed, including two children, and 150 injured. Some speculate that the drastic rise in temperature increased the pressure in the tank, causing undue stress on the structure. Litigation lasted six years, and the courts finally concluded that the tank was simply not strong enough to handle 14,000 tons of molasses. The U.S. Alcohol Company paid out around $1M dollars in damages to its victims and their families. To find out more about this fascinating and true story, read Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.

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