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158. The Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

27 Jun

Molasses is not the most pleasant substance, a thick and dark brown sugary syrup which clings on to anything it touches. On the hottest days in Boston, locals claim that the streets bleed it. This local folklore is descended from local fact. For at the edge of living memory, a good 90 years ago there was a catastrophic and bizarre flood. A flood of molasses, a thick brown sugary flood which devastated a small area of Boston, killing several horses, 21 people and at least one cat.

January 15, 1919 – a more than sizeable storage tank 25 metres in height was brimming, holding near its full complement of two-and-a-half million gallons of molasses. During the day there was a sudden rise in temperature of approximately 2°C, this caused fermentation in the molasses. The substances produced increased the pressure inside the tank. To add to the strain, the ethyl-alcohol produced was a potent substance used in both rum and munitions at that time. This all led to a reaction slightly less sedate than fermentation.

The sound was described afterwards as a muffled roar; rivets popped with sounds akin to those pf machine gun fire. Then the pressure became too much. The explosion tore apart the half-inch-thick iron surrounds, splitting it into three pieces which were launched through the air.

One of the iron hunks smashed a freight house filled with workers, the rest of the explosion flattened the adjacent buildings and another hunk of iron crushed a fire station. Then the two-and-a-half million gallons of dark brown molasses were loosed onto the city, with even graver consequences. The immense wave tore through Boston’s North End, reaching speeds of 56 km/h and heights of 4.5m according to some reports.

The force of the wave was such that a train was lifted off of the railway and swept a train off of its rails and pulled buildings off of their foundations. One reported that the houses:

“seemed to cringe up as though they were made of pasteboard,”

The wave carried on to injure 150 people, collapsing houses, throwing lorries through fences and turning over both carts and motor cars. Horses were trapped in the dark brown goo and many died. It took many days to even estimate the damage as the molasses subsided slowly to reveal ever more bodies. All of the local streets and houses themselves were flooded with the sticky viscous mess, in some places 1m deep. Also accompanying the molasses were tonnes of fresh rubble from the shattered buildings.

Most of the 21 dead died through crushing, asphyxiation or a mixture of the two. The bodies were glazed over by the molasses, thereby making identification extremely difficult. Right after the incident rescue efforts were undertaken. Many waded in to try and help those in need. Ironically them more often than not becoming stuck and requiring rescue themselves.

Throughout the rest of winter and spring the nearby harbour stayed brown. It took six months to liberate the streets, buildings and motor cars from their sugared glaze.

A definitive cause was never found, many attribute it to both the sudden temperature rise and underlying faults in the Purity Distillation Company’s tank. Some saying that when it was first filled with molasses, so many leaks sprang up that the company painted the tank brown to hide them. Either way the 25m high tank was not in any state of possible repair post-flood. For at least 60 years afterwards, the streets in Boston’s North End were filled with the strong scent of molasses during summer. In fact they say, you can smell it to this day.

Thanks to :) for submitting the idea

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10 Comments

Posted by on June 27, 2011 in Articles

 

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10 responses to “158. The Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

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