On Jan. 15, 1919, the city of Boston experienced a unique and horrifying disaster when a tank that stored molasses for a distilling company collapsed, flooding parts of the town. The incident became known as the Great Molasses Flood and caused the industry to rethink how to store supplies.
According to Britannica, a storage tank fermenting molasses initially to create ethanol for World War I weapons collapsed, sending more than 2 million gallons into the city. The accident caused 21 deaths, 150 injuries and heavy damage.
Purity Distilling Co., now owned by United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA), operated the tank on the waterfront Commercial Street. At 12:30 p.m., the container burst, sending waves of molasses an estimated 15 to 40 feet high, rushing at 35 mph.
Many people were swept away, and the winter temperatures caused the molasses to become viscous, trapping and suffocating victims. The density of the substance made it difficult for rescuers to help. Many people also were hurt or killed by passing debris. Some were even thrown into Boston Harbor, where their bodies would not be found for months.
Many animals also died in the flood, including 25 horses. In addition, according to The Boston Globe, houses and other buildings, including a firehouse, were destroyed and swept off their foundations.
It took weeks to clean up the disaster site, and The History Channel says that Boston Harbor was brown until summer. The surrounding neighborhood had a lingering smell of sweetness for almost a decade.
Many victims quickly took legal action against the distilling company. However, USIA claimed the incident was a terrorist attack by those opposed to the ethanol’s use in weapons. But it was clear that the tank was unsound from the start. Since its construction four years before the incident, continual leaks were evident, and passersby claimed to hear loud groaning from the structure for a long time prior to the explosion.
USIA eventually paid damages to the victims after it was ruled in 1925 that the tank was faulty.
FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter!