The Great Molasses Flood: A Crisis of Fermentation?

A sticky wave of sweetener flooded Boston’s North End, carrying with it a hidden cause behind the catastrophe.

Shutterstock/Halil ibrahim mescioglu

It’s one of the strangest disasters in history, a story so far-fetched it seems like a fantasy. But for those unfortunate enough to witness it firsthand, the sticky flood of sweetener that swamped Boston’s oldest streets was far from fictional. In the early 20th century, a giant tank of industrial molasses ruptured in the North End, triggering a calamity that left 21 dead and 150 injured, and created millions of dollars in property damage.

The biggest question in the wake of this tragically avoidable accident is what happened to bring about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. Could everything be chalked up to poor management, or was there something else fermenting beneath the murky molasses surface?


The setting. In 1915, the Purity Distilling Company built a tank in Boston’s North End to store molasses imported from the Caribbean. This enormous steel tank measured 50 by 90 feet and had the capacity to hold 2-1/2 million gallons of molasses, enough to fill 3-1/2 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It provided a temporary holding space for the syrup before it could be sent across the river to an ethanol distillation facility, where it was eventually used to feed the insatiable wartime demand for dynamite, bombs, and other munitions.

The incident. January 15, 1919, started unseasonably warm, around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Just after 12:30 p.m., downtown workers, who were outdoors enjoying the break in wintry weather, heard a piercing staccato sound coming from the harbor. It was the rivets from the molasses tank shooting off under pressure. A dull roar followed, and the tank’s steel sides ripped open, spilling more than 2 million gallons of warm molasses down Commercial Street in a wave that some reports say crested at 15 feet.



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