January 15, 1919, was a mild day in Boston. People surrounding a hulking, 50-foot-tall molasses vat at the Purity Distilling Company were just starting in on lunch, enjoying the unusually warm weather. The streets were bustling with activity—horse drawn carts were making deliveries, households were busy with chores, passenger trolleys made their way to their destinations, and a train was expected to pass by any moment on the Boston Elevated Railway.
With a percussive rumble, the giant molasses vat burst, sending a 15-foot wave of viscous goo sloshing through the streets of Boston’s North End. The 35 mph wave overtook people where they walked or stood, killing 21 and injuring 150 more. Over 2 million gallons of the sweet, sticky molasses collapsed buildings and overturned carts and debris, smothering people and animals as it flowed. The incoming elevated train stopped just in time to avoid falling into the mess after one of the track supports was knocked out, letting the tracks sink into the muck.
A massive cleanup was required to get rid of the millions of gallons of molasses. Salt water was used to spray it away, but the workers couldn’t help spreading the brown sludge all around Boston as they came in and out. But with over 300 helping hands, the work was done in about two weeks, although the harbor stayed brown from the runoff until summer.
The Purity Distilling Company was owned by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, who ended up being held responsible for the flood (despite their attempts to blame it on a bombing by anarchists). The vat was judged to have had a structural failure and to have been unsound for the amount of molasses it contained. It was found that the vat had been leaking molasses so badly, it had been painted brown to hide the streams of liquid. The company paid $1,000,000 in compensation.
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