Centennial of Boston's ‘Great Molasses Flood,' City's Most Bizarre Disaster

What to Know

  • A century ago on Tuesday, a deadly wave of molasses flooded through Boston's North End neighborhood.
  • A tank carrying 2.1 million gallons of molasses suddenly ruptured, killing 21 people and injuring 150 others.
  • By some accounts, the massive wave of molasses reached as high as 40 feet.

Before the North End turned into a tourist destination, it was used as a port for molasses shipped from the West Indies.

One hundred years ago on Tuesday, a major accident at the molasses holding tank killed nearly two dozen people and injured more than 100 more.

It was a fast-moving flood of molasses, despite that sounding like an oxymoron. The saying goes "as slow as molasses" or "as slow as molasses in the winter," but that's not what happened a century ago.

"'As slow as cold molasses' is simply not the case in this instance," Massachusetts Historical Society librarian Peter Drummey said

Drummey took us back to 1919.

"This enormous wave of molasses spread out and crushed everything in its path," he said. "It’s this thick ooze. So horses are knocked down, trapped by the molasses as are people and are suffocated under it, drowned by it or weighted down and crushed by it."

Commercial Street is where that wave of molasses originated. To put things into perspective, the top of the Kopps Hill Terrace is 25 feet above Commercial Street. By some accounts, that wave reached as high as 40 feet.

Some of the molasses flowed into the harbor while the rest of it flooded the area of Commerce Street between Charter and Foster Streets. The force of the speed caused significant damage to the area.

"That’s powerful enough, even at a distance of hundreds of yards to damage or knock building down," said Drummey.

Witnesses thought the tank exploded but historians believe it was the sound of the tank toppling 50 feet to the ground that unleashed the 2.1 million gallons of molasses into the North End.

"People today think that this was a tank that was poorly designed," Drummey said.

Loss of life could have been worse. At the time, streetcars and elevated trains traveled on Commercial Street. Thankfully, none were passing at the time of the disaster.

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