The Great Molasses Flood Centennial


Today is the 100th anniversary of strangest disasters in history, the Great Molasses Flood in Boston’s North End.  On January 15, 1919, a 2.3-million gallon tank of molasses on the Charles River waterfront burst open and sent a wave of the sticky, brown fluid into the working-class, immigrant neighborhood.  It’s a quirky story, and one that lends itself to jokes along the lines of “a sticky situation” and “slow as molasses in January,” but the disaster had catastrophic human cost.

21 people died in the molasses flood, crushed by the force of the wave or smothered by the sticky goo forced into their noses and mouths.  Another 150 people were injured, some trapped in the molasses as it cooled as rescue workers attempted to fight through the congealed mass to reach them. Buildings were damaged and demolished, including a firehouse that was pushed off it’s foundations by the wave.  The damage to the neighborhood was extensive, and it took teams of workers several weeks to clean up the molasses.

Panorama of the Molasses Disaster site. Photograph: Globe Newspaper Co. (creator). Boston Public Library.

I noted earlier that this storage tank was built in a working class, immigrant neighborhood, and as a result the victims were Irish and Italian laborers and children.  Not only was it dangerous to have an industrial structure in a residential neighborhood, but the substandard construction of the tank was directly responsible for the disaster.  The owner of the tank, United States Industrial Alcohol, was forced to pay out a large settlement in a class action suit and the government more stringently enforced regulation of industrial construction in the wake of the disaster. And yet, even today, the poorest among us – especially people of color and immigrants – suffer the most from industry’s callous disregard of human life.  I recently listened to a podcast about Africatown – a community in Alabama created by formerly enslaved people – which is suffering from pollutants dumped by a nearby paper mill. As I remember the victims of the Great Molasses Flood, I also think of how even today there are poor communities in America suffering from the effects of factories and refineries adjacent to their homes, illegal dumping of pollutants in their water, and interstate highways cutting through their neighborhoods.

The centennial was commemorated this morning with a ceremony at Langone Park, a baseball field in the North End where the tank once stood.  Participants in the event stood in a circle recreating the circumference of the tank.  Photo via Adam Gaffin (@universalhub) on Twitter.

There are a lot of resources available should you wish to learn more about the Great Molasses Flood. One of the best articles I’ve read covering the anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood is by Cara Giaimo on Atlas Obscura.  Other articles on the anniversary were published in The Boston Globe and The Guardian.  Archaeologists from the University of Massachusetts-Boston recently performed a geophysical survey to find the foundations of the tank.  Scientific American studied the physics behind the disaster.  The definitive history of the Great Molasses Flood is Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo.  Dennis Lehane also included a fictional account of the disaster in his novel The Given Day.  The Hub History podcast episode on The Great Molasses Flood is also worth a listen.  Finally, The Dead Milkmen recorded a musical tribute to the disaster.

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