17 May 2010

Disasters: Boston Molasses Disaster

By Zoe Archer

On an unseasonably warm January day in 1919, the North End of Boston suffered a terrible--and bizarre--disaster. A giant tank storing molasses exploded shortly before 1 p.m. on January 15, resulting in the deaths of twenty one people and injuring another 150.

How did this strange disaster come to be?

The tank itself was ninety feet in diameter, and had a capacity of 2.3 million gallons. The tank had been hastily constructed in 1915 by a division of the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, who planned to use the molasses in the manufacture of rum. Arthur Jell, the man in charge of the tank's construction, had no technical background and couldn't even read blueprints. Wanting to have the tank finished in time for the first molasses shipment, Jell skipped the preventive step of first filling the tank first with water to test for leaks. After the molasses was put into the tank, the leaks were so abundant that local children gathered drips in cans. Jell responded by having the tank painted brown to keep the leaks from being seen.

Two days before the explosion, a shipment had come in almost completely filled the tank. On the day of the disaster, the bottom of the tank split open with a roar. Waves of molasses went in every direction, estimated at 8 to 15 feet high. A few sources even claim the wall of molasses reached a height of 30 feet. Some workers and nearby people drowned, others were crushed when toppling buildings fell on them.

A giant chunk of the steel tank hit the nearby elevated rail line. The trestle snapped, but quick thinking by the train's driver saved many lives. Others weren't as lucky. Five men eating their lunch inside the nearby Public Works Department were smothered and died. A woman was killed when the front of her house was torn away by the wave of molasses, and a little girl gathering firewood beneath the freight cars was also killed by the deluge. A fireman inside his station house was crushed under a billiard table after the torrent of molasses knocked the firehouse on its side.

It's estimated that the flood traveled at a rate of 35 miles per hour--much faster than one might suspect possible for molasses in January. But the day was warm and the contents of the tank under pressure, creating a perfect molasses storm.

Rescue and clean-up were, as one could well imagine, highly difficult given the sticky nature of the disaster. It took weeks before the neighborhood finally got rid of the spilled molasses. The aftermath continued as approximately 125 lawsuits were filed against the company responsible for the tank. USIA initially claimed that the tank had been blown up by anarchists or temperance advocates. Their arguments did not hold up against the class action suit, and USIA's resulting payout of $600,000 can be calculated at over $6 million in today's currency rate.

Prohibition came into effect a year after the Boston molasses disaster, thus bringing to an end the need to store such huge quantities of molasses for the production of rum. But some say that on warm days in the North End, the scent of molasses still hangs in the air.