The Molasses Disaster of January 15, 1919

Molasses disaster? Can molasses kill people?

Yes, a molasses tank in Boston exploded with great force and flooded the streets with a huge wave of molasses. It killed 21 people, crumpled the steel support of an elevated train, and knocked over a fire station.

molasses disaster scene
Molasses disaster scene. By Leslie Jones, courtesy of Boston Public Library's image gallery and store. Click for bigger image.

Yankee Magazine Article

"The Molasses Disaster of January 15, 1919" by John Mason.

John Mason describes the events with facts known about the disaster and some embellishments coloring the lives of the victims.

Smithsonian Article

"Without Warning, Molasses in January Surged Over Boston" by Edwards Park.

Edwards Park also describes the events of the day, with some impressions of its place in Boston history.

The Violence of the Explosion

Fermentation, a sudden rise in temperature, and an inadequate tank caused the tank containing two million gallons of molasses to explode. The force of the explosion was so great that:
  • Half-inch steel plates of the huge molasses tank were torn apart. ("Seeking Cause of Explosion," The Salem Evening News, January 16, 1919: 7.)
  • The plates were propelled in all directions, hard enough to cut the girders of the elevated railway. (Ibid.)
  • After the explosion, a tremendous vacuum sucked into ruin buildings which had withstood the primary blast. (Ibid.)
  • The vacuum also picked up a truck and dragged it across the street toward the molasses tank. ("Big Molasses Tank Blast Kills Eleven," The Boston Globe, January 16, 1919: 8.)
  • An elevated train was lifted off the rails and fell onto the ties. (Ibid.)
  • Some buildings collapsed.
  • Some buildings were knocked off their foundations.
  • Some buildings were buried under the flood of molasses.

The Terror of the Scene

I went to original newspaper articles to find out what it was like. Envision a disaster scene with smashed buildings, overturned vehicles, drowned and crushed victims, and terrified survivors running away covered in molasses. Like the modern-day disasters with which we are unfortunately familiar, there was chaos, terror, buildings in ruins, victims to be dug out, trapped survivors to be rescued, rescue workers among the victims, and anguished families rushing to relief centers to find their relatives. It was like any horrible disaster scene, with the addition that everything was covered in smelly sticky brown molasses.

More

Before the explosion, the tank's owner, U.S. Industrial Alcohol, responded to warnings about structural problems with the tank by painting it brown, making it harder to see the molasses leaking out of the tank. (Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003): 70-71.)

Hours after the explosion, a company lawyer was on the scene falsely blaming others for the disaster. (Ibid, 112-113.)

More Molasses Disaster Information

A book was published about the Boston molasses disaster in 2003, Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo. There are other articles about the Boston molasses disaster at Wikipedia and Ooze. Another unsual accident happened at Lake Peigneur, where an entire lake swirled down the drain into a salt mine, described in Wikipedia and Damn Interesting.