Skip to content

Here’s what Boston looked like after a deadly wave of molasses swallowed the North End

Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood, which killed 21 people in Boston’s North End when a storage tank ruptured and sent more than 2 million gallons of the thick liquid crashing through the cobblestone streets of the historic neighborhood.

Photos of the aftermath of the flood were captured by The Boston Globe, which donated its vast archive of newspaper clippings, photographs, and negatives of unpublished photos to Northeastern in 2018. Take a look.

January 15, 1919 was unseasonably warm. Temperatures reached the 40s and people of all ages gathered along the waterfront in the North End to eat lunch and enjoy the sunshine.

At approximately 12:30 p.m., a 50-foot-tall storage tank belonging to the United States Industrial Alcohol Corporation exploded and released more than 2 million gallons of molasses on to the cobblestone streets of the North End. Workers and schoolchildren heard a “tremendous crash and a deep growling” and were quickly overcome by a 40-foot wave of viscous liquid that traveled 30 MPH and engulfed everything in its path. Workers, animals, trains, and trucks were swept along by the thick, sugary tsunami, which pulled buildings from their foundations and ripped pilings from the elevated train tracks above Commercial Street. Twenty-one people were killed and 150 more were injured, including many who suffered brain injuries and broken limbs.

Fragments of the great tank were thrown into the air, buildings in the neighborhood began to crumple up as though the underpinnings had been pulled away from them, and scores of people in the various buildings were buried in the ruins, some dead and others badly injured.

— Boston Globe

The molasses flood leveled homes, shipping docks, warehouses, and Engine 31 of Boston’s Fire Department. Food, pigs, and barrels of beer were swept up in the wave of molasses that crashed through the streets and hardened into a solid mass by nightfall. Firemen were crushed and killed under the weight of the fire station, which was flattened within seconds by the rush of goop. Houses made of wood along Commercial street were reduced to kindling, while brick buildings sustained significant damage. Copp’s Hill, which is located on the far side of Commercial Street, created a natural barrier that helped contain the disaster to the waterfront neighborhood.

The elevated railroad along Commercial Street collapsed and an alert conductor prevented an inbound train from plunging into the abyss of sugar and syrup. The lack of electrical equipment available at the time made cleanup difficult, and it took days before officials were able to assess the full extent of the damage and determine the death toll.

More than 100 lawsuits were filed against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, whose lawyers argued that Italian anarchists had bombed the tank. A judge eventually ruled that the disaster was the result of shoddy design and construction of the tank and ordered the United States Industrial Alcohol Corporation to pay about $630,000 in settlements. The tank had been leaking for years (the Industrial Alcohol Corporation had even gone so far as to paint the tank brown in an effort to cover up the many leaks along the seams) and workers at the distilling company said that the tank was unsafe.

The United States Industrial Alcohol Corporation received a large shipment of molasses from Cuba a few days before the disaster and filled the tank to near capacity. The tank was built during World War 1, as part of a program to support the war effort. Inspections were rare and quality control was lax back then and the molasses flood led directly to improved construction and workplace safety regulations.

All that remains of the Great Boston Molasses Disaster is a small plaque at the entrance to a waterfront park in the North End that reads:

On January 15, 1919, a molasses tank at 529 Commercial Street exploded under pressure, killing 21 people. A 40-foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood. Structural defects in the tank combined with unseasonably warm temperatures contributed to the disaster.

Local legend has it that on particularly warm days, you can still smell the faint aroma of molasses seeping up from the streets of the old North End.

photos from the Boston Globe archives

Cookies on Northeastern sites

This website uses cookies and similar technologies to understand your use of our website and give you a better experience. By continuing to use the site or closing this banner without changing your cookie settings, you agree to our use of cookies and other technologies. To find out more about our use of cookies and how to change your settings, please go to our Privacy Statement.

Like what you see? Sign up for our daily newsletter to get the latest stories right in your inbox.