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Why the Great Molasses Flood Was So Deadly

January 15, 2019 in History

By Emily Sohn

When a steel tank full of molasses ruptured in 1919, physics and neglect contributed to make the accident so horrific.

It was like a perfect—if bizarre, terrifying and very sticky—storm.

Around lunchtime on the afternoon of January 15, 1919, a giant tank of molasses burst open in Boston’s North End. More than two million gallons of thick liquid poured out like a tsunami wave, reaching speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. The molasses flooded streets, crushed buildings and trapped horses in an event that ultimately killed 21 people and injured 150 more. The smell of molasses lingered for decades.

One hundred years later, analyses have pinpointed a handful of factors that combined to make the disaster so disastrous. Among them: flawed steel, safety oversights, fluctuating air temperatures and the principles of fluid dynamics.

Results were devastating.

“First you kind of laugh at it, then you read about it, and it was just horrible,” says Mark Rossow, a civil engineer and professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, who has written about the molasses flood.

Smashed vehicles and debris sitting in a puddle of molasses on Commercial Street on January 16, 1919, the day after a giant tank in Boston’s North End collapsed, sending a wave of more than two million gallons of molasses. The tank was 58 feet high and 98 feet in diameter. It was used to store molasses which eventually was shipped to a distillery in Cambridge.

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READ MORE: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

In the immediate aftermath, news coverage included speculation about fermentation that produced too much pressure inside the tank. Some blamed anarchists for setting off a bomb. “Explosion Theory Favored by Expert,” reported the Boston Evening Globe. The trial that ensued lasted for years and gathered input from thousands of expert witnesses, producing 20,000 pages of conflicting testimony.

Ultimately, U.S. Industrial Alcohol, the company that owned the tank, was found liable, even as many questions remained about what had actually happened.

Steel Tank Structure Was Flawed

More recent investigations suggest several fundamental problems with the structure of the tank. Designed to hold 2.5 million gallons of liquid, it measured 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter. But its steel walls, which ranged from 0.67 inches at the bottom to 0.31 inches at the top, were too thin to support the weight of …read more


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