April 1, 2023

The Great Molasses Flood

On Wednesday, January 15, 1919, at around noontime near the waterfront in downtown Boston the ground began to shake as a loud roar rang out over the city. As the people stood mystified a giant wave of molasses tore through the city streets. The wave was estimated at almost 15 feet high and traveled at a speed of approximately 35 mph. “Slow as molasses” did not ring true that January afternoon. 

A few days earlier a ship from Puerto Rico had brought in over 2 million gallons of molasses to the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA). The molasses was used to create industrial grade alcohol, which in turn was sold to make explosives during World War I. A 50-foot-tall tank (90-feet in diameter) was filled to the brim. Unfortunately, when the company designed the container they didn’t consult an engineer and tried to build it as cheaply as possible. According to Stephen Puleo, author of Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, “There were often comments made by people around the vicinity that this tank would shudder and groan every time it was full…And it leaked from Day 1. It was very customary for children of the North End to go and collect molasses with pails.” The loud roar that the people of Boston heard that day was the tank rupturing.

The Great Molasses Flood

The following day the Boston Post vividly described the scene: “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form — whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was. Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings — men and women — suffered likewise.” Downtown Boston was suffocated with molasses; buildings were ripped off their foundations, homes destroyed, cars overturned, and twenty-one people perished in its wake.

In its aftermath the United States Industrial Alcohol Company tried to distract from its engineering negligence by claiming it was an act of sabotage by Italian anarchists. Anarchism was prevalent within Boston and across the United States, and the USIA had had their facilities targeted in the past, but the evidence was plentiful that no such bombing had occurred. Over 100 lawsuits were filed against the company and combined into a single class-action lawsuit. In the end, state auditor Hugh W. Ogden ruled that the company had knowingly endangered the residents of the densely populated Boston neighborhood and had provided limited structural oversight in the construction of its tanks. The USIA was forced to pay out millions in damages, which was almost unheard of during the early 20th century.

The Great Molasses Flood served as a watershed moment for the nation and its relationship with corporate America. In his book, Stephen Puleo wrote, “the molasses flood and the court decisions that followed marked a symbolic turning point in the country’s attitudes toward Big Business, which for most of the first quarter of the twentieth century had been subjected to few regulations to safeguard the public.”