I’m from New England, not too far north of Boston, and for as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with history, especially early Revolutionary War history. I could probably give the Freedom Trail tour myself. I’m from a part of the United States that is full of great history and fantastic museums. I went on a field trip to the Salem Witch museums in 3rd grade, and it was the best thing about 3rd grade.
In middle school, I had a teacher who was… well… odd? Interesting? Weird? Would walk around the halls singing “I’m dreaming of a purple Christmas.” The bottom line being his was amazing, and known for going off on tangents about things that either had nothing to do with what we were studying or very little to do with what we were studying (usually nothing). Occasionally could go on for several classes, sometimes half a class.
It is because of him that I was legitimately shocked when I was watching Drunk History awaiting the Alexander Hamilton episode and discovered that is 1919 the was a flood on the north end of Boston. Not a big deal right? Well, it was a flood of molasses. I’m going to link the Wikipedia article about it at the end of this post, but if you can, I recommend watching the Drunk History episode about it. It’s the one about food.
In Cambridge, there was a large a container that held what I believe can be categorized as a crap ton of molasses. It was used to make rum and alcohol was a big business at the time right before prohibition officially started, but there was still a ban on alcohol at the time. However, the amendment didn’t exist yet. (It was literally ratified the day after the disaster: January 16, 1919, and the county would become “dry” on January 17, 1920), so weird legal territory, but for the most part, the giant vat of molasses in Boston was to help make illegal rum. It was also used for making ammunition. How? I have no idea, but it was.
The tank was, by all accounts, poorly constructed. Many shortcuts were taken in the building of the tank to save money and to build it faster. A modern forensics report says that the walls of the tank were approximately half as thick as they should have been even by early 1900’s safety standards. It was also made out of the wrong kind of metal. Most likely to cut corners and save money.
A few days before the disaster extra, warm, molasses was added to the tank which combined with it being January in Boston, was a major contributor to what happened that afternoon.
On January 15th, 1919, it was a little bit warmer than usual, around 40 degrees and warming quickly. It had been a typical winter up until then with cold New England style weather. About half past noon the 50 by 90-foot vat of molasses collapsed sending over 2 million gallons of molasses into the streets.
Here’s a map of the area the red circle is about where the vat was:
Imagine stepping out of your house after hearing what must have sounded like a gunshot to see a wall of molasses flying toward you. This molasses was not as slow as its name would imply. It was in fact, ridiculously fast. A study by Harvard proved that it was not a slow flood but a literal wave, as the news reports of the time claim. 26 million pounds of molasses flooded Commerical Street in Boston forming a15-foott wave of sticky sweet goo that coated everything around it.
Now, this sounds amusing, something to laugh about 98 years later. I imagine a brown wave moving so slow, like it does when I try to pour it out onto pancakes or when I’m trying to make gingerbread, but the force of the wave trapped people. It was quick moving and warm at first, but it slowed and hardened quickly, trapping 21 people, 2 of them 10-year-olds, until they suffocated. 150 people were injured, many horses were injured or killed.
The property damage cost was well over $100 million in today’s money, that’s not including the cost of actual clean up. They used sand to try to absorb it and used fire trucks spraying salt water to spray it into the harbor. It’s said that the harbor (the harbor in Boston that has been known for the stuff that gets throw into it) was brown with molasses until summer. It took about 80 thousand man hours to clean the whole thing.
Here’s a photo of the aftermath:
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live through something like that. I’ve witnessed floods, but, like, water, so it just went away after a while. I can’t even begin to think about how terrifying, it was to look out your window and see this.
There are many jokes that can be made about this event; I’ve had to restrain myself in writing this for the most part because, in the end, 21 people died a horrible death. And for the rest of the survivors’ lives, they had to tell people that someone they knew drowned in molasses.
It’s said that if the wind blows just right in the North End is still smells like molasses.
Until Next time internet,