Remembering the Great Molasses Flood of 1919

By, Alex G. ’21

On January 15, 1919, Purity Distilling Company’s storage tank on Commercial Street in the North End toppled over and unleashed 2.3 million gallons of molasses into the streets of Boston. Despite the incident’s current reputation as a slightly comical, “bizarre” disaster, it was incredibly fatal and disastrous at the time.

The tank, hastily built during World War I, was known to be structurally unsound by employees of the United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA) Company and often creaked loudly in the months leading up to the spill. The molasses was imported from the Caribbean and kept in Boston to be used for making alcohol. The tidal wave unleashed by the collapse of the tank was at least 15 feet tall, but some firsthand accounts even reported waves of 40 feet. In a 2013 article, The Scientific American conveyed why the molasses flood was more dangerous than a tidal wave of water. It explained, “The dense wall of syrup surging from its collapsed tank initially moved fast enough to sweep people up and demolish buildings, only to settle into a more gelatinous state that kept people trapped.”

In total, 21 Bostonians died, and 150 people were injured during the flood. In addition to human injuries, The Boston Globe reported in 1919 that “a score of Public Works Department horses were either smothered in their stalls by the flood of molasses or so severely injured as their stable collapsed that they were shot by policemen to end their suffering.” The clean up was not only incredibly messy and time consuming, but also very dangerous for search crews. In some places, the molasses acted “quicksand-like,” as described by History, which made rescuing trapped citizens very difficult. After the disaster, the USIA ultimately paid over $600,000 to the victims and their families after being sued 115 times.

Despite the catastrophic death toll and impact on Boston society, many Bostonians today have not heard of the tragedy, or, if they have, believe it to be comical or inconsequential. Caitlin S. ‘21 exemplifies these same tendencies. Caitlin admitted that she first learned about the flood on the day of the centennial. Upon hearing about the Great Molasses Flood, she thought it was “almost a fake story” because it seemed “so unrealistic,” but after looking more into the tragedy she finds the flood “no longer a funny story.”

In honor of the tragedy, a centennial memorial was held on January 15, 2019 on Commercial Street. More than 60 people made a ring around the place where the tank stood in the early 1900s, and the names of the 21 people who died were read aloud. Then, the gatherers observed a moment of silence. The ceremony recognized the seriousness of the event and honored all the civilians who passed away on that day. The Boston Fire Department also recognized firefighter George Layhe who died in the flood by posting his photo on the department’s Twitter account.

Despite the decreased attention towards the Great Molasses Flood in recent times, the memorial on the centennial of the flood demonstrated that the tragedy has not been forgotten by all. The ceremony exhibited the strong unity that governs Boston even after 100 years.