Boston Suffolk County The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

On January 15, 1919, a crowded section of Boston was rocked by a massive tidal wave—not of water but of molasses. The bizarre deluge came after a molasses holding tank burst and sent 2.3 million gallons of the dark-brown syrup swirling through the city streets. The 15-foot surge leveled buildings, crushed horses and vehicles and destroyed part of a nearby elevated train platform. 21 people were killed and over 150 injured in the disaster, but it would take several years and a marathon court case before its cause was finally identified.
The source of what became known as the “Great Molasses Flood” was a 50-foot-tall steel holding tank located on Commercial Street in Boston’s North End. Its sugary-sweet contents were the property of United States Industrial Alcohol, which took regular shipments of molasses from the Caribbean and used them to produce alcohol for liquor and munitions manufacturing. The company had built the tank in 1915, when World War I had increased demand for industrial alcohol, but the construction process had been rushed and haphazard. The container started to groan and peel, and it often leaked molasses onto the street. At least one USIA employee warned his bosses that it was structurally unsound, yet outside of re-caulking it, the company took little action. By 1919, the largely Italian and Irish immigrant families on Commercial Street had grown accustomed to hearing rumbles and metallic creaks emanating from the tank.

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