Boston Molasses Disaster (4)

The remains of the molasses storage tank following the Boston Molasses Disaster in 1919. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.


The same view in 2014:


The storage tank that was responsible for the January 15, 1919 Boston Molasses Disaster had been hastily constructed in 1915.  At the time, World War I was ongoing in Europe, and although the United States remained officially neutral, American companies were supplying munitions and other items to Europe.  One important product was industrial alcohol, and the increased demand led the Purity Distilling Company to quickly build a 50 foot tall and 90 foot diameter tank to store molasses, which would later be transported and distilled into alcohol.

The tank was known for its frequent leaks, but the company’s response was to paint it brown to camouflage the molasses that dripped down the side.  Often, residents would help themselves to some of the leaking sweetener, likely unaware of the danger that the tank posed.  However, on January 15, 1919, the tank burst, likely due to the internal pressure caused by the fermentation of the molasses, along with the rapid rise in air temperature from the previous day.

The resulting flood created a 25-foot wave that killed 21 people, injured around 150, and caused extensive property damage.  Today, the area has been redeveloped as a park, with the actual location of the tank being approximately where this baseball diamond is located today, at what is now known as Langone Park.  Notice the Charlestown waterfront in the distance, including the masts of the USS Constitution.

Boston Molasses Disaster (3)

The Engine 31 firehouse along Commercial Street in Boston’s North End, following the 1919 Boston Molasses Disaster.  Image courtesy of Boston Public Library.


The scene in 2014:


As mentioned in this post, the Engine 31 firehouse was located right next to the molasses storage tank, and was knocked off of its foundation by the 25-foot wave that resulted when the tank burst.  One firefighter, George Layhe, was trapped under the building and drowned in the molasses.  Today, the scene along the waterfront is a public park, with little evidence of its industrial past or the disaster that occurred here 95 years ago.

Boston Molasses Disaster (2)

Another view of the aftermath of the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919. Image courtesy of Boston Public Library.


The scene in 2014:


Because of the properties of molasses, a flood of it is very different from a flood of water or similar liquid.  Many victims of the January 15, 1919 Boston Molasses Disaster drowned in the molasses, not necessarily because they didn’t know how to swim, but because swimming in molasses is impossible.  It also made rescue and recovery operations difficult; notice the firemen wading in knee-deep molasses, with everything around them coated in it.  In this particular scene, they are working next to a firehouse that once existed along the waterfront; it was completely swept off of its foundation by the 25-foot wave of molasses that came when the nearby storage tank burst.  One fireman at the station, George Layhe, was trapped under the building and drowned in the molasses; he was one of the 21 people killed in the accident.  Today, the site of the molasses tank and the firehouse has been turned into a public park, as seen in the 2014 photo.

Boston Molasses Disaster (1)

The view looking northwest on Commercial Street in Boston’s North End in 1919, in the aftermath of the Boston Molasses Disaster. Image courtesy of Boston Public Library.


The same scene in 2014:


It almost seems comical to think of a massive flood of molasses, but the Boston Molasses Disaster was actually a serious tragedy that killed 21 people and injuring about 150 others.  On January 15, 1919, a 50-foot tall tank of molasses burst along the waterfront in the North End, flooding the neighborhood with 2.3 million gallons of the thick, sticky substance.

The tank was located on the left-hand side of Commercial Street, just to the right of the photo, and along with killing or injuring a number of people, it also caused substantial property damage, sweeping buildings off their foundations as causing heavy damage to the Commercial Street elevated railway, as seen in the photo above.  Today, the elevated tracks are long gone, and most of what was once an industrial area on the right-hand side along the waterfront is now a public park.