Do You Know That In 1919 A Section Of Boston Was Rocked By A Flood Of Molasses?

A flood in the middle of Boston, on 15 January 1919 caused the death of 21 people and injured another 150 others.


The cause was not a storm or a tsunami but a burst tank full to the brim with 2.3 million gallons of sticky, brown molasses. The 15 foot flood of molasses caused major damage to buildings, vehicles and a railway platform, not to mention the horses and humans that suffered and died as a result of the flood. A bitter court case raged on for several years before the true cause was revealed.

A 50-foot-tall steel holding tank owned by the United States Industrial Alcohol company stood on the North End of Boston on Commercial Road. The raw molasses arrived regularly from the Caribbean and was used to manufacture alcohol and munitions. The tank had been hurriedly built in 1915 and WWI had caused higher demand for industrial alcohol. The tank has been groaning and leaking for years and management had been warned that it was unsafe.


Just after midday on 15 January 1919 an almighty metallic rip broke the relative silence. Before anyone could respond a tidal wave of 2.3 million gallons of molasses sludge tore down Commercial Road at 35 miles per hour, obliterating everything in its path. The Boston Globe reported buildings simply being washed away and being caused to “cringe up as though they were made of pasteboard.”

The firehouse collapsed while the house next door was washed away. Firefighters and police got to the scene and were joined by more than 100 sailors from the Navy vessel USS Nantucket. Rescue efforts were hampered by the sticky, sludgy mess, especially as the cool air had caused it to harden somewhat. They managed to save many people from the carnage and but for some, help was too late.


After things had settled, United States Industrial Alcohol faced 119 lawsuits, claiming the tank was unsafe and that they were negligent. USIA responded by claiming the horrific accident was an act of sabotage, the work of terrorists or as they put it, “evilly disposed persons.” The lawsuits were ultimately combined and a mammoth 5 year legal battle ensued.

The end result was that USIA lost the case and the victims and their families received a damages payout of $628,000. That would be around $8 million in today’s money.