The Great Molasses Flood That Swallowed Boston

Almost exactly 98 years ago, Boston was submerged by a deadly molasses flood, which helped to end the city’s rum production.

via Wikimedia Commons

About 30 minutes after noon on Jan. 15, 1919, a five-story tall tank nearly full of molasses in Boston’s North End burst without warning, popping its rivets like a zipper. A sable wave 25 feet high and 160 feet wide coursed down a hill and then through city streets at 30 miles per hour, producing what survivors described as an ominous hissing or sucking sound. The molasses—more than 2 million gallons of it—swept away people, horses, and railroad cars, leveling stout brick walls and buckling an elevated train track just seconds after one train full of passengers had passed by and moments before another came around the bend.

The flood swept away 10-year-old Maria Distasio, one of the neighborhood kids sent by her parents to collect molasses that always seemed to ooze from the tank’s seams. It demolished a three-story woodframe home just south of the tank, turning it into an pile of planks and shattered windows, killing Bridget Clougherty, the 65-year-old resident trapped inside.

It caught 34-year-old George Layhe, a firefighter at the Engine 31 firehouse, who had been idly watching his colleagues play whist. The room grew suddenly dark, and Layhe found himself pinned beneath a beam when the firehouse was knocked off its foundation. Layhe fought to keep his head twisted above the muck for a while. But before he could be freed his strength gave out, his head lowered, and he drowned. The flood started and ended in minutes.

In all, the molasses flood killed 21 people, injured hundreds, and caused tens of thousands of dollars of damage.

The episode later found its way into court—of course. A total of 119 lawsuits were filed against the tank’s owner, which were then combined into a class action suit. A number of questions were addressed during the lengthy inquest. Such as: Why did the tank burst? Was sabotage involved? Could the deadly flood have been prevented?

When I was in my early teens, I’d read an account of the great molasses flood, and the episode captivated me. How could it not? For a long time afterward I had one additional question, one I’d never heard asked, and so never heard answered.

What the hell were 2 million gallons of molasses doing in downtown Boston?

Some years later, while researching a book on rum, I found some answers. From almost its founding, Boston had been an voracious importer of molasses. The West Indian sugar plantations that had cropped up in the 17th and 18th centuries were massively profitable—so much so that it made no sense to devote arable land to producing food. It was more economic to grow sugar and use the abundant cash to import everything else.

And the northern colonies were happy to oblige—they shipped off salt pork, salt cod, and all manner of starches and grain to the West Indies. What to bring back in empty holds? Most of the outbound Caribbean sugar was destined for the higher-paying markets of Europe. But rather than return empty, ships loaded up with molasses, a dirt-cheap byproduct of sugar making. In New England, it went into brown bread and baked beans. And ruma lot of rum. By around 1770, some 160 distilleries were cranking out spirit in the northern colonies.

The rum distilleries of the northeast gradually slid into irrelevance—molasses became harder to get after American independence; whiskey distilleries started blossoming in the West, closer to abundant corn and rye supplies.

Yet Boston hung on, with a handful of distilleries still cranking out rum into the 20th century. Among these: Purity Distilling, a subsidiary of United States Industrial Alcohol Company. It’s was Purity’s molasses tank that collapsed.

The names of the two entities pretty well sum up the times: Industrial alcohol was the name of the game in an era of consolidation—big oil, big steel, and big chemical all had roots in the late 19th century. And the name “Purity” reflected shrewd marketing—it was an apt name for a product being made two decades after the Bottled-in-Bond Act, and just a decade after the Pure Food and Drug Act, both of which were passed to address concerns over harmful shortcuts in making hooch. (A 1912 ad for whiskey insisted it reached “the consumer in all its pristine purity. It’s as pure as nature and as honest as daylight.”)

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The Boston storage tank was constructed in 1915 to accommodate the imports of molasses, especially from Cuba. The tank was set on a rise just off the harbor. The molasses was pumped from tanker to tank, and then later hauled away by railcar to the distillery in East Cambridge.

Some of the molasses in the ill-fated tank was destined to become rum. But rum’s days were by then numbered. In fact, the number of days was exactly one.

On the very next day following the molasses disaster—Jan. 16, 1919—Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the constitutional amendment banning the sale of alcohol. One year later, Prohibition went into effect and America went dry.

So why was Purity still importing such massive amounts of molasses on the eve of Prohibition? Because it also made industrial alcohol—about 80 percent of the alcohol it produced was for purposes other than drinking. Pure alcohol had been in especially high demand during World War I, where it was used in making munitions, smokeless gunpowder, and much else.

What caused the tank’s collapse? For a time, sabotage by an anti-military anarchist was suspected. But that theory failed to muster evidence and hard-nosed engineering studies further eroded it. The fault was bad design, hasty construction, and poor maintenance. The inquest found inadequate riveting around the base and insufficient safety inspections. These problems were compounded by an unseasonably warm winter day (it was in the 40s) that led to expansion, increased pressure, and ultimately the rupture and collapse of the tank.

Today the great molasses flood is remembered as a strange and unfortunate occurrence, with few lingering effects. (For years, North End residents claimed they could smell molasses on warm days.) Naturally, it’s trotted out each January for “weird news” round-ups.

But it also marks a time when another tide turned—that of Boston’s vital role in rum production. Bad engineering and Prohibition conspired to kill it off… leaving a barren field to be sowed one day by a new crop of craft distillers now rising on a tide of another sort.