The Boston disaster impacted a largely Irish immigrant community

On January 15, 1919, a freak incident in Boston spurred what is now known as the Great Molasses Flood, which killed 21 people and injured more than 100 others.

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History reports that at the time, a 50-foot tank located on Boston’s Commercial Street held molasses property of United States Industrial Alcohol.

The molasses, often imported from the Caribbean, was used to produce alcohol for liquor and munitions manufacturing, which were in high demand in the WWI era.

The tank, first built in 1915, was constructed haphazardly, and the largely Irish and Italian immigrant community local to the molasses tank were accustomed to groans and small leaks from the tank. One employee even raised the issue to his bosses, though little was done to rectify the matter.

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On January 15, 1919, just before 1 pm, disaster struck when the relatively new tank ripped open, unleashing a wave of 2.3 million gallons of molasses at 35 mph over the surrounding neighborhood of Commercial Street.

Local firefighters and police offers, as well as about 100 sailors from the USS Nantucket,  rushed to the disaster scene but were hindered by the thick sludge of molasses that flooded the streets and began to harden in the winter chill.

Firefighters at the scene (Boston Public Library

Firefighters at the scene (Boston Public Library

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The nearby Engine 31 firehouse, where firemen were enjoying a game of cards at lunch, was knocked off of its foundation, causing its second story to collapse into its first. In perhaps the most dramatic rescue of the day, firefighters cut through floorboards to save the firemen, but one firefighter succumbed to exhaustion and died.

Two children who were collecting firewood near the tank were killed in the aftermath., while another who was with them endured severe head injuries.

Ultimately 21 people were killed in the wave, with some 150 people injured. Additionally, some 20 horses perished in the flood. 

The smell of molasses lingered over the neighborhood for weeks, and a section of Boston Harbor was stained brown until summertime.

The aftermath (Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919)

The aftermath (Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919)

H.M. Dorley, who was a Boston and Worcester Street Railway Company freight agent at the time, was only 10 to 15 feet away from the molasses tank when it ruptured. For Dorley, the disaster had been years in the making.

“Instinctively I knew what it was,” Dorley told the Post about hearing the first rumblings.

“Three years ago I prophesied that the molasses tank would burst someday. ‘Molasses tank gone!’ I cried. The words were barely out when the avalanche came."

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Boston police Patrolman Frank McManus told The Boston Post he was only about 100 feet away from the tank when he felt a “wet, sticky substance” hit him in the back and shoulders.

“I was at a loss to know what it was at first, thinking it might be mud, but when I turned my head I saw the molasses tank plunge out in the direction of the elevated structure, which buckled over,” McManus said.

“The next second, a wave of molasses swept up the street in my direction, but I beat it out in the race, for I rushed up a side street and escaped except for my uniform, hat and shoes being literally covered with the sticky substance.”

A local barman, Martin Clougherty, was at his home on 6 Copps Hill Terrace when the wave hit. He told The Boston Globe: “I was in bed on the third floor of my house when I heard a deep rumble.”

“I was asleep and the rumble did not wake me thoroughly," Martin said. "The first impression I had that something unusual had happened was when I awoke in several feet of molasses. It didn’t dawn on me that it was molasses I was in. I thought I was overboard.”

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Martin's 65-year-old mother was killed in the incident. He was able to rescue his sister Teresa, and while his brother also survived the event, he later died in an asylum on account of what his family deemed as trauma stemming from the accident.

Afterward, nearly 120 people sought to sue USIA for negligence, but the company claimed that they were sabotaged.

After a lengthy court battle, a judge ruled that USIA was at fault for the disaster and the company was ordered to pay out $628,000 in damages to those impacted by the flood—the equivalent of around $8 million today.

Below, the Associated Press takes a look at the Great Molasses Flood on 1919 in Boston: