The Molasses Flood of 1919
The story behind the bizarre but true Boston disaster

Most people would never suspect that molasses could be a deadly substance. But on January 15, 1919, residents of the North End learned about the dangers of excessive sticky, sweet goo when an unimaginable disaster struck their neighborhood.

Shortly after noon on that tragic day, the shrieking sound of metal being torn apart was heard on Commercial Street. Nearby workers on their lunchbreak looked up just as a 58-foot high, 90-foot wide cast iron tank filled with 2.2 million gallons of molasses burst wide open. An eight-foot tidal wave of the thick liquid poured out, barreling through the streets of the North End at an estimated 35 miles per hour.

A trail of devastation was left in its wake. Homes and commercial buildings were ripped from their foundations and buried in the onslaught. The Public Works Department, a firehouse and an elevated train track were destroyed. More than 21 people died and 150 were injured. It took weeks to clean up the mess, and for years, much of downtown reeked of molasses, especially on hot days.
The fallout was just as bad. There were 125 lawsuits filed against the company who owned the tank. The hearings for the case were the longest in the history of the Massachusetts court, with over 3000 witnesses called and 45,000 pages of testimony and arguments recorded. Eventually, the owner of the tank was held liable and paid nearly $1 million in damages.

No monument exists to mark this bizarre disaster, but if you climb up on the brick terrace along Commercial Street near Copp’s Hill, you just may be able to detect a hint of molasses odor wafting through the air.

FYI: Beginning January 2, the Boston Public Library presents the unique exhibit Molasses Flood!: Boston’s Unforgettable Disaster. Refer to listing in Sightseeing, for library hours.

—Chris Wallenberg