The Great Boston Molasses Flood Plaque is a small plaque memorializing the molasses flood of January 15, 1919 in the North End of Boston. Found on the corner of Commercial Street and Copps Hill Terrace, this plaque is close to the original bursting point of the massive tank explosion that left 21 total deaths in its wake. This tank and molasses factory, owned by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, was constructed quickly during World War I at a time when alcohol was in high demand and was known to be faulty before it burst. Unfortunately, these flaws led to one of Boston’s strangest catastrophes.
approximately 12:45 on the abnormally warm day of January 15, 1919, the massive
USIA company tank of molasses burst, resulting in a two-story tall wave of
molasses that carried 2.3 million gallons of molasses with it. The tank, a
five-story tall, 90 feet in diameter contraption holding 2,600,000 pounds of
molasses, erupted with such force that molasses travelled across the city of
Boston at speeds just above 35 miles per hour (Atlas Obscura). As the Boston
Globe of the time wrote: “the force of the molasses wave caused buildings to
cringe up as though they were made of pasteboard” (history.com). The sheer
force of the wave was also enough to tear a train apart, along with many
buildings that it passed by and through. Witness John Mason wrote that “the
four loaded freight cars were washed like chips down the track. The half-loaded
car was caught on the foaming crest of the eight foot wave and, with
unbelievable force, hurled through the corrugated iron walls of the terminal”
(Mason). After months of assessment, the property damage resulting from this
explosion totaled $100,00,000 in today’s currency (Mass Monuments), as it
destroyed almost everything within a two-block radius and also created damage
that extended beyond those limits.
with the material damage, the personal damage was just as terrible. Those
closest to the explosion were most vulnerable to injury and death, for once
individuals were trapped in the molasses, it became difficult for rescue squads
to reach them. As reported by the Boston Herald on January 16, the day after
the explosion, “Some of the injured, as most of the dead, were dug from beneath
the wreckage and congealing molasses with bodies maimed and mutilated” (Boston
Herald). Although troops of firemen and police rushed as fast as they could to
help, the process was slow due to the thickness of the molasses was in the
area. Those who were injured were first treated “at the Haymarket Square Relief
Hospital, and from there many were transferred to the City Hospital” (Boston Herald).
Not only humans, but many animals, were stuck in, or killed by the molasses.
For instance, horses were described as “dying like flies on fly paper” by the
Boston Post (The Boston Post).
exact reason for the tank explosion was never exactly understood, although
there has been much research and scientific inquiry into this question. The
over 120 lawsuits that resulted from this incident made it imperative that the
blame fall on somebody, most likely the company itself (history.com). As
research was conducted and people were questioned, it became clear that the
tank had always made strange groaning sounds depending on the temperature and
how much it was holding at any given time. In many accounts it was noted that
the citizens of the area were so accustomed to these noises that, at the time
of the incident, no one thought anything of it (Life Science).
Sharp, a modern researcher, along with a few other scientists did research that
determined that, due to a new, warm load of molasses that had just been
imported and poured into the tank the day before onto the resting cold molasses
already in the tank, the drastic difference in temperature and potential
overloading of the tank most likely had something to do with the explosion
addition, information later surfaced that, because the company was in such a
rush to finish the tank’s construction in 1915, “the strength of the tank
was not tested before it was filled. To avoid costly interruptions in the
molasses distilling process, the manager ignored employees and others who warned
that the tank was unsound” (history.com). Although all of this information
leads directly back to the company and its mistake, the company argued that the
tank had been “sabotaged,” via bombing, according to an article published in
The Daily Boston Globe of the time. The company blamed Italian anarchist groups,
which had at the time been accused of many bombings. The USIA had even received
an anonymous call from someone who actually “threatened to destroy the tank
with dynamite” (history.com). Nonetheless, the USIA was found guilty and ended
up paying millions of dollars to the unhappy families of victims of the flood.
It was said by witness Edward Park that the area
smelled of molasses for months after the incident. Even after the smell was gone, the memory of this
event lingered on for many decades after, and the devastation it brought about
was never forgotten. Nonetheless,
to ensure the memory of The Great Molasses Flood, this plaque was installed.
Although it is a small marker, it stands as a reminder of the chaos of the
flood and, more importantly, what could happen if small technical flaws are