The Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919

“It’s EVERYWHERE!  Oh God…it’s so STICKY…”

~Boston, 1919

Americans are not above tragedy.  Even the most American of us have been knocked down in their prime, while others slowly fade away into obscurity.  But one thing remains constant, there are certain fates that feel more American to befall an individual than others.  Various cultures have their own cultural expectations for loss, and some tragedies can be painted with a silver lining that can give solace to the rest of us.  When a building collapses, it shocks and saddens us, but when we find out that an aggressive orgy was the reason for the building’s collapse, we at least knew that the victims went down swinging.

Which brings us to one of the most delicious fatal disasters in American history.  We are referring to, of course, the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919.

Let’s start with some back story.  Apparently, there are places that like to store 2.5 million gallons of molasses.  Molasses, you might all know, is basically pure, goopy, viscous sugar.  It’s the by-product of processing sugar cane or sugar beets into sugar, and people tend to refer to it mainly for its “being super slow in winter” properties.  So it’s basically super thick sugar water, and it has many uses.  In Boston, in the early 20th century, it was being used by The United States Industrial Alcohol Industry.

Oh, that got your attention?  Good, we hoped it would.

Molasses can be used to create ethyl alcohol, which was used as an active ingredient in liquor, as well as having use in the creation of munitions.  That’s right, this was a tank of sugar sludge whose purpose in life was to get people drunk and shot.  That’s a beautiful thing.  Well, it was, until…

The fucker exploded.

It was January and Boston, and the city was experiencing unseasonably warm weather in the 40s, only a few days after single digits high were the norm.  A combination of this weather change, the low quality of the tank holding the molasses, and carbon dioxide occurring from fermentation occurring in the tank, it ruptured, sending forth an 8-15 foot tidal wave of molasses spewing down the street at speeds of 35 miles an hour, proving once and for all that the phrase, “As slow as molasses in January” is a misnomer.

The aftermath was devastation.  Buildings were uprooted, demolished, one could even say pancaked.  You know, pancakes?  With the molasses?  Eh, screw you guys, that’s totally funny.

Anyway, 21 people end up perishing in this tragedy, but if there’s a way to go, a tidal wave of booze-and-ammo-sugar-water is a pretty good one.  “Here lies John Callahan, Paver, Well Basted.”  It’s sad, but at least it’s unique dammit.

So here you have it, the short story of how shoddy engineering (that a heartless corporation attempted to blame on Anarchist bombings) caused a terrible tragedy that still is a mental image you’re trying to get in your head at this very moment.  Plus, some say, it’s the reason why on certain summer days, the North End neighborhood of Boston smells delicious.

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Filed under Strange America

One response to “The Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919

  1. Pingback: America Fun Fact of the Day 1/15- January 15th in American History | affotd

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