Molasses Tsunami

Fiery hot molasses floods the streets of Boston on this day in 1919, killing 21 people and injuring scores of others. The molasses burst from a huge tank in the heart of the city at the building of Purity Distilling, a subsidiary of United States Industrial Alcohol Company.


In the early 20th century, the primary sweetener in the United States was molasses. Additionally, molasses fermented to produce rum and ethyl alcohol which was quite important in pre-prohibition America.  Beyond that, ethyl alcohol was a key component in the production of munitions of the day.

The Purity Distilling building was located on Commercial Street near North End Park in Boston. On January 13-15 1919, local temperatures rose from near zero into the 40′s.  Perhaps the locals might have called it a “false spring” or maybe they were just happy to have a typical brief winter warm up to have a day or two to thaw out. It was close to lunch time on January 15 and workers were loading freight-train cars within the large building. Next to the workers was a 58-foot-high, 90 foot diameter tank filled with 2.5 million gallons of crude molasses.

Suddenly, the bolts holding the bottom of the tank exploded, shooting out like bullets, and the hot molasses rushed out. Witnesses later recalled hearing a noise like gunfire as the tank’s rivets popped and the steel sides ripped open. An eight to fifteen foot-high wave of molasses swept away the freight cars and caved in the building’s doors and windows. The few workers in the building’s cellar had no chance as the liquid poured down and overwhelmed them. The molasses tsunami that surged through Boston’s North End traveled at around 35 miles per hour in a wave that was and over 160 feet wide at its peak.

The huge quantity of molasses then flowed into the street outside. It literally tore the Engine 31 firehouse from its foundation and then pushed over the support beams for the Boston Elevated Railway. The hot and sticky substance then drowned and burned five workers at the Public Works Department. A train was lifted off the tracks.  Buildings were swept off their foundations and city streets for blocks were left with 2-3 feet of molasses. In all, 21 people and dozens of horses were killed in the flood. It took weeks to clean the molasses from the streets of Boston.

Aside from the deaths and injuries from people being crushed by the force of the air, flying debris and drowning in molasses, people continued to suffer from the after-effects.  Family pets and horses were counted among the dead and injured which brought grief and economic despair for their owners.  Fits of coughing were common among the residents of the area for days after the disaster.


Even after the victims had been pulled from the muck, cleanup crews quickly learned that getting rid of two million gallons of molasses is no small task. Stephen Puleo writes about one of the chief obstacles to the cleanup in his book Dark Tide: firefighters couldn’t just use their hoses to blast the molasses off of building and streets with fresh water. Eventually they realized that saltwater would cut the hardened molasses and enable them to hose it down the streets into gutters. Thanks to all the foot traffic of rescue workers, cleanup crews, and rubberneckers, the sticky mess quickly moved around the city via peoples’ shoes. In all, the cleanup effort required over 80,000 man hours.


This disaster also produced an epic court battle, as more than 100 lawsuits were filed against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. After a six-investigation that involved 3,000 witnesses and 45,000 pages of testimony, a special auditor finally determined that thr United States Industrial Alcohol Company was at fault because the tank used had not been strong enough to hold the molasses. The company had been in such a hurry to get the tank built back in 1915 that it didn’t cut corners so much as it ignored the corners completely. The man who oversaw the construction wasn’t an engineer or an architect; in fact, he couldn’t even read a blueprint. The tank needed to be an engineering marvel to hold all that weight, but the company never even consulted an engineer on the project. Basically, it threw up a gigantic tank as quickly and cheaply as possible, skimped on inspections and safety tests, and hoped for the best.

In light of these details, it’s amazing that the tank held together for four years. Nearby residents reported that the tank had leaked since its construction. Rather than fix the problem, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company had painted the tank brown so the leaks would be less noticeable. Based on their negligence, they were required to pay Nearly $1 million settlement of the claims.

In the flow of this day, I give you Deputy Dave’s Drink of the Day: Tsunami


1 oz spiced rum
1/2 oz  coconut rum
1/2 oz Myer’s® dark rum
fill with pineapple juice
Float 1/2 oz grenadine syrup


Fill glass with ice, add spiced rum and coconut rum. Fill with the pineapple juice. Float 1/2 oz of grenadine and then add 1/2 oz of a dark rum (such as Meyers) for color. serve in Highball Glass.


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