It begins with a strange noise. A weird, low sound rumbles around North End, signifying that something is badly wrong. It’s about 1pm, and millions of gallons of molasses suddenly erupt from a tank holding the sticky mass. It is January 15, 1919 and Boston is about to witness one of its worst disasters.
Nowadays there are plenty of places you may want to see if you’re a tourist in Boston and want to learn about the city’s rich history. You may decide to visit Paul Revere’s house, or Christ Church. It’s less likely that you’re going to look for the site of the Great Molasses Flood, where “sweet, sticky death” once ripped through a community.
The flood may have happened a century ago, but its impact is still felt, and that makes it all the stranger that the tragedy remains relatively obscure. The molasses flood changed Boston forever, but also reached out to touch the rest of America. Its effect reverberates through history, carrying greater significance than simply the buildings that were destroyed, or even the people who died.
Boston is the capital of Massachusetts and spiritual capital of New England as a whole, so those unfamiliar with it may be surprised to learn that it’s quite a small city in terms of its physical size. It’s a town of old, narrow streets that are much easier to walk than drive. The city was established by a group of Puritans in 1630 and it played a vital part in the Revolutionary War. Even today it is a major center for culture, education, science and medicine.
It was during the 1800s that Boston saw its population dramatically increase as Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants arrived from Europe. The 20th Century saw it becoming yet more diverse as African Americans and Puerto Ricans settled in the city at the end of the Second World War. Even today, Boston continues to grow and change. It does so while remembering its history, and this year that means honoring the centenary of the Boston Molasses Flood.
The traditional economy of Boston depended upon shipping and textiles, but the 1900s saw these industries supplanted by digital and biomedical firms. Previously, Boston had earned its nickname of “Beantown” because of the molasses once imported into the city from the Caribbean. The sweet, sticky substance was a vital ingredient of a famed local dish, Boston Baked Beans. The treacle trade, however, also led to one of the city’s biggest disasters.
During the 1910s, Boston Harbor was the final destination for ships from the Purity Distilling Company, a subsidiary of United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA). Here, vessels would unload molasses transported from the West Indies, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Millions of gallons passed through the harbor, and those quantities only increased when a world war broke out and spread through Europe.
You see, molasses could be distilled into alcohol, and that in turn could be used in ammunition, including dynamite. The substance was therefore heavily in demand during the war. USIA owned a distillery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but it needed somewhere to store the unloaded molasses before it could be transported further afield. It chose Boston’s North End.
North End was an impoverished and overcrowded suburb at the time, and the population demographic was 90 percent Italian immigrants. They were poor and didn’t have a lot of political power, so it was easy for a big corporation to do more or less as it pleased. In 1915, USIA constructed a four-story steel tank in Commercial Street, with Copp’s Hill just opposite.
The tank was 50 feet tall and 90 feet across, but it was built in a hurry. It leaked constantly despite regular attempts to reseal it. Indeed, one maintenance engineer, a man called Isaac Gonzalez, was apparently frequently given to rushing out in the middle of the night just to check the giant tank hadn’t burst. Furthermore, workers reportedly took pieces of steel that had broken off from the side of the massive receptacle to the firm’s office to prove that it was unsafe, but the danger was ignored by USIA.
Children tended to be less worried about the tank being dangerous. They saw the leaks as a great opportunity to collect molasses by the bucketload and take it home. Meanwhile, one supervisor tried to hide the leaks by painting the tank brown. The tank’s walls were made of the same steel as the Titanic, which had sunk just a few years before.
A heated pipe was used to transport molasses from the harbor to the tank, which was partially refilled 29 times between its construction in 1915 and the day it exploded. Millions of gallons of molasses came in from Puerto Rico on January 13, and for only the fourth time, the tank was filled to near-capacity. There was enough molasses in there to fill three-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The tank was already more than half full before the new shipment arrived. The molasses in the tank was cold, but the ship carrying the new consignment had been traveling along the Gulf Stream, which had helped warm its cargo. Warm and cold together were a recipe for dangerously fast fermentation. Gases in the tank increased in pressure and the moment of disaster crept closer.
It was lunchtime on January 15 when the tank finally exploded. The 2.3 million gallons of molasses flooded into the streets and swamped everything in its path. The 160-foot-wide wave was reportedly between 15 to 40 feet in height, so there was no escape from what the Boston Post newspaper described as a “black reeking mass”. It swallowed men, women and children as well as cars and buildings.
Normally, molasses would pour very slowly as it’s denser than water, so the wave’s estimated speed of 35mph (50 feet per second) may seem improbable. That’s until you study the physics and realize that molasses acts like toothpaste, or ketchup. A gravity current would have given the molasses the force of an avalanche, or a mudslide, or even lava flowing from a volcano.
Although temperatures were mild for the time of year on the day of the disaster, the molasses still didn’t spread as far as it could have in summer. This wasn’t as good as it sounds, however, because it meant the substance became concentrated in a two-block radius. People couldn’t escape, especially as evening drew in and it became colder. The foot-deep molasses hardened around its victims until it couldn’t be broken apart without chisels and saws.
The Boston Post didn’t mince its words when describing the disaster, likening crushed boxes to “sandwich meat” and remarking that the steel freight cars that carried them as broke like “eggshells” under the unstoppable force. Parts of the burst tank fell 20 feet onto the elevated train track. One railway car was reportedly driven by the force of the liquid towards a nearby worker.
A boy called Pasquale Iantosca had been gathering firewood at the time of the flood. He was only ten years old and his father Giuseppe watched him carefully from their apartment window. Pasquale was wearing two red sweaters, so he was hard to miss. That was until a black wave “consumed him as though he had never existed”, to quote the historian Stephen Puleo in his book Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.
It was hours after Pasquale disappeared that rescuers finally managed to locate his body. His injuries included a broken pelvis and broken arms, and his red sweaters had turned molasses brown. He was one of 21 people to be killed: 18 of them Italian immigrants or Irish workers. What’s more, a further 150 people had been injured.
Flood victims included a 78-year-old woman who had her jaw broken and saw her house completely disappear. Her sister had suffered severe disfigurements and had suffered a stroke, but she wasn’t found until days later. Another man was swept 35 feet by the molasses and only survived by grabbing hold of a ladder. Many victims couldn’t breathe because their lungs were filled with molasses.
It had seemed an uneventful lunch for the men playing cards in the Engine 31 firehouse before the molasses came. Then they found themselves buried as the entire building was swept off its foundations. One firefighter died despite his desperate attempts to keep his head out of the molasses, but the area in which he was trapped in only had 18 inches of space.
Humans were not the only victims, and the Boston Post described 25 dead horses as looking “like so many flies on sticky paper.” The deaths were tragic, but things weren’t easy for the survivors, either. George Kakavis had $4,400 dollars saved in a cigar box and had to wait nervously for days until the rescue crews could locate his basement under the molasses and rubble so he could retrieve the cash.
More than 400 men participated in rescue efforts as the molasses was cleared away by farmers from nearby towns. Bodies were being found for months after the tragedy. For instance, while Flaminio Gallerani was found 11 days later, wagon driver Cesare Nicolo wasn’t pulled out of the waters of Commercial Wharf for another four months.
For weeks after the tragedy the molasses was still being scrubbed from the streets, and the waters of Boston Harbor stayed brown for months. The full repercussions, however, would last much longer. There was a battle to decide who should take responsibility for the disaster, and the eventual court ruling changed America in ways that are still felt today.
USIA wasn’t willing to take responsibility for the flood and tried blaming the Italian anarchist movement, which did mastermind other attacks (or was at least blamed for them) on American soil. Like the flood’s connection to the First World War, it is yet another way the Great Molasses Flood is intimately tied to wider American history.
Eventually, 119 victims and relatives affected by the disaster became the plaintiffs in Dorr v USIA, which became the first ever class action lawsuit. The company continued to protest about Italian anarchists as more than a thousand witnesses delivered 20,000 pages of testimony.
It wasn’t an easy court case, and it took five years for the investigation to be completed. It was in April 1925 that the verdict was finally delivered. The court ruled that the tank’s failure had been caused by company negligence, and USIA was ordered to pay the plaintiffs $628,000 in compensation.
Judge Hugh. W. Ogden ruled that USIA was liable for the flood, and that marked the first time a major American corporation had been beaten in court. It’s a little-known fact that this case was also the foundation of many modern building regulations, despite the fact that the tragedy itself is not widely remembered.
It may seem strange that the significance of the Boston Molasses Flood for Boston, for building regulations, and as part of the wider history of America is often neglected. Experts on the disaster think this may be because it seems a little too humorous to be a serious tragedy. Mention people died because of molasses and the common and all-too-human reaction is to suppress a smile.
Gavin Kleespies of the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) has described the almost “Willy Wonka”-like quality of the flood as a reason it is hard to take seriously. He thinks it sounds more like something out of a children’s book than a real – and deadly – event. Fact-checking website Snopes even has a page on the tragedy just to reassure people that yes, it really happened.
Even the memorials and tributes to the flood and its victims are not so well-known. A woman called Francine Pellegrino wrote a musical about it, but the show was short-lived. Molasses in January ran off Broadway for two months, but the production didn’t have much stage space and that meant it was hard to convey the scale of the tragedy.
In 2014, a structural engineer reviewed the construction of the original tank and identified several ways in which it had been inadequate. The walls were only 0.67 inches thick at the bottom and that narrowed to 0.31 inches at the top, which was much too thin to hold millions of gallons of molasses. This was alongside its rivet holes being over-stressed.
Even engineers of the time should have known better, but they were in a hurry to build the tank and meet rising demand for molasses. The tank was never properly inspected and it was put to work without any proper checks, such as filling it with water to see if it leaked. Indeed, every time the molasses was poured in, the tank groaned, which was another clue to its inadequacy – but the company just ignored it.
Other problems weren’t recognized by the engineers at the time, such as a failure to mix enough manganese in the tank’s steel. Without manganese, the steel became brittle at low temperatures. The danger point was 59°F, and on the day of the disaster it was only about 40°F in Boston. Indeed, similar flaws affected American ships in the Second World War.
Now that it has been 100 years since the disaster, the MHS is trying to widen awareness of what happened and its historical significance. Panel talks have taken place in the city to put the event in its historical context and show how it is relevant today, with topics including issues faced by immigrants both then and now.
Bryan Webb is a civil engineer who learned about the flood when taking a city planning course, and he wondered why that was the first time he’d heard of it. One small plaque seemed inadequate for the second biggest disaster – in terms of fatalities – in Boston’s history. Only 1942’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire killed more people.
A total of 492 people died in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, and that tragic event is marked by a plaque on the sidewalk and a marker on the wall of the hotel which now stands in its place. The fire’s real legacy, however, was how it led to a complete revision of building codes. The death toll may not have been so high if there had been sprinklers, more accessible exits and better emergency lighting, or if there were less flammable materials in the building.
Webb made a proposal to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to build a memorial to the Great Molasses Flood on empty land near North End. The structure he suggested would have been built in the shape of the original tank, but split in half to make an arch. It could have been made part of a larger amphitheater.
There could have been a stone wall for the victims’ names in the memorial as part of an historical exhibit, as well as paths and picnic lawns for visitors to wander. Webb introduced his idea in 2014, but despite enthusiasm from local people, it never came to fruition and the Department of Transportation currently appears to have no intention to build such a memorial.
Other than the way they died, the victims of the Great Molasses Flood were ordinary people and are buried in ordinary graves in Boston. You can visit them. The flood’s legacy also lives on in the claim that the North End still fills with the sweet aroma of molasses on hot summer’s days. That fond description sits in sharp contrast to the “brown syrup and blood” smell described by the Boston Post at the time.