Just after noon on January 15, 1919, something went very wrong at the Purity Distilling Company in Boston’s North End. It was at that time that a storage tank, filled to the brim with 26 million pounds of molasses, ripped open. Before anyone could register what had happened, a 15-foot wave of sticky syrup was coursing down a nearby street at 35 miles per hour.
A sea of syrup may seem like a comical situation, but the it was anything but funny. Several homes were destroyed, and nearby buildings were knocked right off of their foundations. The steel girders of the Boston Elevated Railway were broken, and a train was nearly swept off the tracks. The property damage alone totalled around $100 million in today’s values.
The human casualties were even worse. The molasses flood killed 21 people, who either drowned or were crushed by fast-moving debris. Another 150 people were severely injured. Many horses, dogs, and other animals were also killed. The river of molasses moved so fast that no one, human or animal, could get out of its way. Rescue efforts were also difficult, as police and firefighters had to trudge through thick, waist-high syrup to get to the injured and dead.
Cleaning up the mess was a monumental task in itself, and took over 80,000 work hours to accomplish. At first, firefighters tried to hose the molasses off the streets and into the gutters, but this had little effect on the hardening syrup. Even as city crews tried to find an effective method of cleaning up the sticky goo, sightseers, citizens, and rescue workers tracked the molasses even further throughout the city on their shoes. Eventually, someone figured out that saltwater would cut the molasses, allowing it to be washed away.
As with any tragedy of this scale, people immediately wanted to know who was to blame. Investigators quickly determined that careless construction work on the storage tank caused it to rupture. The Purity Distilling Company built the tank in such a hurry that they paid no attention to how it was constructed. The walls of the tank were too thin and were made of a brittle steel that could not handle molasses storage. It turned out that the company never even consulted an engineer on the tank’s construction, and the man who had overseen the project could not even read a blueprint. The company even knew the tank leaked, but the just painted it brown to hide the seeping molasses.
Lawsuits inevitable ensued after these findings were released. After a trial that lasted six years and involved testimony from over 3000 people, a Massachusetts judge found Purity’s parent company liable for damages. The family of each victim was awarded $7000.
The repercussions of the Great Molasses Flood are still with us today in some respects. It was this case that pushed many states to pass laws requiring that qualified professionals, like engineers, approve plans for large construction projects.