Tidal waves and tsunamis have been wreaking havoc on civilization since the beginning of time but 1919 a tidal wave of a different sort ravaged Boston’s north end.
On a warm afternoon, January 15th, 1919, residents and workers in Boston’s north end heard a loud explosion. A large burst of air rushed through the streets and was followed by a tidal wave of molasses reported to be nearly 15 feet high and moving at a rate of 25 miles per hour.
The explosion occurred in a large molasses storage tank located at 529 Commercial Street. The tank, which stood 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter, housed up to 2,300,000 gallons of molasses. Whether the tank exploded or simply collapsed under pressure is still unknown.
Speculation over the cause of the tank’s failure continues to this day. One popular explanation is that molasses held within the tank began to ferment in the unusually warm January weather. Carbon dioxide created by the fermentation and trapped within the tank expanded beyond the capacity and strength of the tank, causing it to burst at the seams.
A second theory purposes that the tank was simply constructed poorly and never tested at maximum capacity. When the tank was filled beyond it’s actual limits, the walls cracked and burst. Locals reported that the tank often leaked, some even collected the leaked molasses on a regular basis for home use.
Some conspiracy theories have gone so far as to purport that the tank was in good repair but was filled beyond its maximum capacity in order to produce rum before the looming prohibition laws took effect. However, the distillery that owned the tank did not produce rum, nor were there any recorded plans to do so. Purity Distilling, the company who owned the tank, used the molasses to produce industrial alcohol.
The thick, churning river of molasses raced through the streets causing insurmountable damage. In the end, 150 people were injured and 21 individuals were killed.
The molasses traveled with such force that trains were lifted off of their tracks, people were picked up and moved hundreds of feet, and several buildings were lifted off of their foundations. In some areas, the molasses reached a depth of two to three feet.
The cleanup lasted several days and took over 87,000 man hours to complete. The search and rescue alone lasted four days and included members of the Army, Navy, Red Cross, and Boston Police.
Despite rigorous clean up efforts, the harbor was reported still to be black with molasses well into the summer. Legend has it that to this day, in the heat of summer, the scent of molasses still fills the air in Boston’s north end.