The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 Killed Dozens and Left a Devastating Toll on Boston

The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 Killed Dozens and Left a Devastating Toll on Boston

By Trista

January 15, 2019, marked the 100th anniversary of one of history’s most bizarre disasters, Boston’s Great Molasses Flood. This flood started shortly after noon on January 15, 1919, and took over 300 people about six months to thoroughly clean up. However, those living on Commercial Street in Boston’s north end would be able to smell the disaster for decades to come. On top of that, it would take about six years before there would be an end to the trial which came out of this strange tragedy.

Unknown to everyone at the time, the story of Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919 would begin four years earlier in 1915. Purity Distilling Company, which was also known as the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, built a tank to hold molasses. Not only can molasses be used for cooking, but it can also be used to make rum. The company knew that they would need a large tank to hold all the molasses. They even knew they needed to build the tank cheaply and as quickly as possible.

A view of the Great Molasses Flood aftermath, looking north across North End Park on January 16, 1919. Boston Globe Archive.

Steps Towards the Bizarre Disaster

The United States Industrial Alcohol Company hired one guy to build the tank for the molasses. He was not an engineer and did not know how to read a blueprint. On top of this, the company did not hire any engineers or other professionals to make sure the supplies for the tank or the tank itself was safe to use. Part of the reason for this was the company did not legally have to. The other part of the reason was that this would have cost the company more money and they did not want to spend more money.

The company decided to the tank should be 50 feet tall and 90 feet wide. They wanted to make sure the tank could hold 2.5 million gallons of molasses because their need for molasses was increasing and they only felt it would continue to grow. The company was right about this as prohibition was about to set in and the United States Industrial Alcohol Company was one of the companies which would be able to produce alcohol legally, especially during the time of the disaster.

Commercial Street in Boston. iStock/Boxer Boston.

With the building of the tank completed, the company immediately began to use it. They did not worry about the tank getting inspected because they felt they had bought just the right supplies to hold the 2.5 million gallons of molasses. However, people around Commercial Street quickly began not only to notice a nasty smell but also see the tank leaking around its corners. On top of this, one of the company’s own employees told his boss about the leaking he had noticed around the tank.