On January 15, 1919, a massive tidal wave obliterated Boston’s North End. The deadly wave was not a tsunami wrought from the Atlantic but rather 2.3 million gallons of molasses dumped on the streets when a storage tank ruptured.

The molasses tank before it ruptured in 1919

The molasses was stored in a large tank belonging to the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. The metal tank was built in 1915, 90 feet in diameter and nearly five stories tall. The construction process was rushed, from day one the tank leaked. Nearby residents complained of loud groans and rumbles emanating from within.

At the time, the molasses was not used as a sweetener but rather fermented to make alcohol and bombs. Anticipating Prohibition (1920) the company filled the tank to its brim.

At 12:40 p.m. the metal tank burst releasing a 15-foot tidal wave of thick molasses onto the city street. Moving at 35 miles hour the force broke all in its path twisting metal frames from the nearby elevated train platform, leveling buildings and bearing into the open mouths of people screaming for help.The wave quickly receded revealing a half mile of destruction, waist deep muck, crumpled bodies.

 

Commercial Street, Boston, MA

A Boston Post reporter wrote, “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form – whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an unheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was…horses died like so many flies on sticky fly paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings – men and women – suffered likewise.”

The molasses reached near the waterfront, the site of the former city stables. Police offers shot dozens of horses trapped in the molasses. Most had fallen and were struggling to pull their heads from the think molasses, snorting to clear their nostrils. Others were down injured by debris carried forward in the flood; timber and steel. Gunshots reverberated across the waterfront as each animal was put out of its misery.

Rescue workers sifted through the ruins for days to recover the bodies. 150 people were injured, 21 died. A wagon driver, Cesare Nicolo, was the last victim found, fished from the harbor nearly 4 months after the flood.

The smell of molasses hung in the air for weeks and Boston Harbor’s waters were stained brown through the summer. The company claimed that the tank had been bombed but after five years of litigation, the court determined that the company was entirely to blame.