Everyone's heard of the Boston Tea Party, but who's heard of the Boston Molassacre? The Boston Globe headline of January 15, 1919 screamed: "Huge Molasses Tank Explodes in North End; 11 Dead, 50 Hurt!"
On the water front in an Italian immigrant community in Beantown sat the Purity Distilling Factory. Inside sat a 90 by 50 foot cast iron tank filled to capacity with molasses which was slated for rum production. Boston's temperature rose by 40 degrees Fahrenheit within a day or two and the molasses fermented. As workers broke for lunch that day on Commercial Avenue, the tank made a roaring noise as it exploded, sending 2.3 million gallons of sticky syrup through the cobbestone streets.
People ran from the 8 to 15 foot wave that travelled at 35 miles per hour and exerted 2 tons of pressure, hurling trucks into the harbor, flattening buildings,crushing freight cars and lifting a train from its tracks. "Horses died like many flies on sticky fly-paper," according to author Stephen Puleo. People tried to outrun the sticky "tsunami" but to no avail. The wave reached Atlantic Avenue, breaking the girders of the Boston Elevated Railwlay structure, turning it into a mass of twisted metal.
One hundred and sixteen cadets from the USS Nantucket were the first rescuers on the scene followed by the Boston Police, the Red Cross and the Army. Try as they might, it was next to impossible to pull the trapped victims from the sticky goo. Three hundred worked 24/7 for two weeks to clean the molasses from Boston's cobblestone streets, using saltwater as regular water would just run off the sweet coating. Dozens of cellars had to be pumped clean of molasses and the Boston Harbor remained brown until the following summer.
After an official investigation it was determined that fermentation of the molasses, a rapid rise in air temperature and a fatigue crack in the cylinder caused the explosion. While the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company wanted to blame anarchists for the Boston Molasses Flood (it was the height of the post WWI Red Scare) , the court ruled that it was the company's fault, forcing them to pay $600,000 ($6.6 million in today's dollars) to the victims and their families. Early estimates of casualities and fatalities had been low: in the end, 21 people perished and 150 were injured due to the accident.
Bostonians claim that the sweet syrupy smell could still be detected on a hot summer's day decades after the disaster. Today tourists can take a ride on the amphibious vehicle "Molly Molasses". Bus drivers, sharing a bit of culture with their riders, sometimes call the event "The Boston Molassacre".
Read Stephen Puleo's book Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, copyright 2004.