‘Oh my God! Run!’: The day a deadly mo­lasses wave tore through Bos­ton


It was promis­ing to be an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally warm win­ter day in Bos­ton. The tem­per­a­ture on Jan. 15, 1919, had soared to 40 de­grees from 2 de­grees ear­lier in the week, prompt­ing many down­town work­ers to head out­doors.

Shortly af­ter noon in the city’s bustling North End, as Model T Fords chugged by and el­e­vated trains screeched above Com­mer­cial Street, a group of fire­fight­ers sat down for a game of cards in a fire­house near a mas­sive tank that stored mo­lasses used in the pro­duc­tion of in­dus­trial al­co­hol.

As the fire­fight­ers puzzled over their hands, they heard a strange stac­cato sound. The riv­ets on the 50-foot-high stor­age tank be­gan to shoot off and a dull roar fol­lowed. At the noise, fire­fighter Paddy Driscoll whipped around. “Oh my God!” he ex­claimed as he saw the dark tor­rent spilling out. “Run!”

The Great Mo­lasses Flood was un­der­way. The syrup swamped one of Bos­ton’s busiest neighborhoods, killing 21 and in­jur­ing 150.

“Mid­day turned to dark­ness as the 2.3 mil­lion gal­lons of mo­lasses en­gulfed the Bos­ton water­front like a black tidal wave, 25 feet high and 160 feet wide at the out­set,” Stephen Puleo re­counted in his book “Dark Tide: The Great Bos­ton Mo­lasses Flood of 1919,” which vividly cap­tures de­tails of the disas­ter, in­clud­ing the chill­ing re­ac­tions of Driscoll and oth­ers to the tank rup­ture.

Bos­ton Po­lice pa­trol­man Frank McManus spot­ted the 26 mil­lion-pound wall of goop and shouted to the dis­patcher, “Send all avail­able res­cue ve­hi­cles and per­son­nel im­me­di­ately – there’s a wave of mo­lasses com­ing down Com­mer­cial Street!”

By now trav­el­ing at 35 mph, the wave of sug­ary doom tore through the North End with enough power to crum­ple small struc­tures, blast a truck through a fence, knock the fire­house off its foun­da­tion and rip away a beam sup­port­ing the el­e­vated train tracks.

Within sec­onds, two city blocks were in­un­dated – and the death toll be­gan to climb.

City work­ers who were tak­ing ad­van­tage of the warmth to eat lunch out­side drowned where they sat. Two 10-yearolds who were col­lect­ing fire­wood near the mo­lasses tank were swept away. Oth­ers suf­fo­cated as their homes and base­ments quickly filled.

“I was in bed on the third floor of my house when I heard a deep rumble. ... I awoke in sev­eral feet of mo­lasses,” Martin Cloughtery told the Bos­ton Globe in 1919. “A pile of wreck­age was hold­ing me down, and a lit­tle way from me I saw my sis­ter. I strug­gled out from un­der the wreck­age and pulled my sis­ter to­ward me and helped her on to a raft. I then be­gan to look for my mother.”

Even an­i­mals didn’t es­cape. “A score of Pub­lic Works Depart­ment horses were ei­ther smoth­ered in their stalls by the flood of mo­lasses or so severely in­jured as their sta­ble col­lapsed that they were shot by po­lice­men to end their suf­fer­ing,” the Globe wrote in 1919.

“Here and there strug­gled a form - whether it was an­i­mal or hu­man be­ing was im­pos- sible to tell,” the Bos­ton Post wrote. “Only an up­heaval, a thrash­ing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was.”

Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can mag­a­zine in 2013 ex­plained why a wave of mo­lasses can be much dead­lier than a wave of water. “The dense wall of syrup surg­ing from its col­lapsed tank ini­tially moved fast enough to sweep peo­ple up and de­mol­ish build­ings, only to set­tle into a more gelati­nous state that kept peo­ple trapped.”

Res­cuers and sailors from the USS Nan­tucket de­scended on the scene in droves, but strug­gled in the muck, which stained the wa­ters of Bos­ton Har­bor brown for sev­eral days.

The search for sur­vivors be­came a search for an­swers: Why did the tank rup­ture and were there signs be­fore­hand?

The sec­ond part of that ques­tion was eas­ily an­swered. Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1918, one of the hottest on record in Bos­ton, North End res­i­dents be­gan notic­ing leaks at the tank. Af­ter an em­ployee re­ported a leak, the com­pany acted - by paint­ing over the gray shell of the tank with a rust-brown color. “The sticky liq­uid now blended, chameleon-like, with the fresh coat of paint, in­dis­cernible from the tank’s wall,” Puleo wrote.

Lit­i­ga­tion swiftly fol­lowed the ex­plo­sion, and the law­suit and trial against the tank’s owner, U.S. In­dus­trial Al­co­hol, would last six years and grow to one of the most ex­haus­tive in the state’s his­tory.

The trial pro­duced three the­o­ries about the cause of the rup­ture: struc­tural fail­ure of the tank, fer­men­ta­tion of the mo­lasses that led to an erup­tion and sab­o­tage via a bomb. The com­pany stead­fastly blamed an­ar­chists. A court-ap­pointed au­di­tor dis­agreed, and in 1925 ruled that the com­pany was to blame for the disas­ter. U.S. In­dus­trial Al­co­hol would later pay the flood vic­tims and their fam­i­lies $628,000 - the equiv­a­lent of $9.2 mil­lion to­day.

To­day, stud­ies have of­fered grim in­sight into why the tank col­lapsed. In a 2015 is­sue of Civil and Struc­tural En­gi­neer Mag­a­zine, en­gi­neer Ron­ald Mayville con­cluded that the walls of the tank were too thin, a flaw that builders at the time should have known. “No one dis­puted they un­der­de­signed the tank walls,” he told the Bos­ton Globe.

Back in the Bos­ton of 1919, the city grieved as more bod­ies were found, some so bat­tered and glazed by mo­lasses that iden­ti­fi­ca­tion proved dif­fi­cult. Four months later, the last body at­trib­uted to the flood was dis­cov­ered un­der the wharf.

“Bos­ton is ap­palled at the ter­ri­ble ac­ci­dent,” Mayor An­drew J. Peters said in 1919. Over time, how­ever, the Great Mo­lasses Flood has be­come less of a cat­a­lyst for ou­trage and more of a quirky foot­note in his­tory.

“The flood to­day re­mains part of the city’s folk­lore, but not its her­itage,” Puleo wrote. “The sub­stance it­self” – mo­lasses – “gives the en­tire event an un­usual, whim­si­cal qual­ity.”

But for years af­ter the flood, the mem­o­ries of it resided not just in North En­ders’ minds, but in their noses. “The smell of mo­lasses,” jour­nal­ist Ed­wards Park wrote in 1983, “re­mained for decades a distinc­tive, un­mis­tak­able at­mos­phere of Bos­ton.”

Washington Post File Photo

The Great Mo­lasses Flood swamped Bos­ton’s busiest neighborhoods, leav­ing some 21 dead and in­jur­ing an­other 150.

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