Atlantic Cities

Anniversary of the Day: Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Anniversary of the Day: Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919
Flickr/Boston Public Library

Ninety-four years ago today, a giant molasses tank in Boston exploded, sending a flood of molasses through the streets near Keany Square. Twenty-one people were killed and dozens more injured. Dead horses, dogs and cats had to be hauled away by the cartload. The flow was so strong that a railroad car was pushed off the tracks.


Flickr/Boston Public Library

As Boston Magazine writer Eric Randall (formerly of The Atlantic Wire) observes, the more you know about the Molasses Flood, the more rapidly it moves from "amusingly quirky," to "genuinely horrifying." He digs up a 1983 Smithsonian commemoration that reveals the Wave would have been traveling at 35 miles per hour:

Spill a jar of kitchen molasses. Then imagine an estimated 14,000 tons of the thick, sticky fluid running wild. It left the ruptured tank in a choking brown wave, 15 feet high, wiping out everything that stood in its way. One steel section of the tank was hurled across Commercial Street, neatly knocking out one of the uprights supporting the El. An approaching train screeched to a stop just as the track ahead sagged into the onrushing molasses.

When the molasses wave hit houses, they "seemed to cringe up as though they were made of pasteboard," wrote one reporter. The Clougherty home at the foot of Copp's Hill collapsed around poor Bridget Clougherty, killing her instantly. And when pieces of the tank hit a structure, they had the effect of shellfire. One jagged chunk smashed the freight house where some of the lunchers had been working.

The great brown wave caught and killed most of the nearby laborers. The fireboat company quarters was splintered. A lorry was blasted right through a wooden fence, and a wagon driver was found later, dead and frozen in his last attitude like a figure from the ashes of Pompeii.

Horrifying.

HT: Boston Magazine.

Top image: Flickr/Boston Public Library.

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

Join the Discussion