On a hot summer night, residents of Boston’s North End claim they can still catch a faint, sweet whiff of molasses on the breeze. It’s been nearly 100 years since the explosion at the Purity Distilling Company sent two million gallons of hot molasses cascading down Commercial Street, but the story of that fateful day lives on in infamy.
It was just after noon on January 15, 1919 when the massive iron molasses tank – used in the making of alcohol for munitions and rum – erupted, spilling its hot, viscous contents. According to survivors, the tank began to rumble and bang “as if someone were hammering to get out,” just before the explosion.
Purity Distilling Company was in a mad rush to manufacture as much rum as possible before the onset of Prohibition. Employees were working three shifts a day and the molasses tank was shoddily built, equipped with just one vent to release the fermenting gasses.
The temperature had also risen above 40 degrees on the fifteenth – much higher than the frigid weather Boston had endured in the preceding days – causing the pressure inside the tank to build up. The circumstances were perfect for a large-scale disaster, but unfortunately, nobody knew it.
When the tank finally let go, the ground shook as if in the throws of an earthquake. The 25-foot-high wave of hot molasses swept across Commercial Street at an estimated 35 mph, destroying the home at 6 Copps Hill Terrace and killing a woman who lived there.
A chunk of the tank became a projectile, collapsing a section of the Elevated Railway Company’s Altlantic Avenue line. The Bay State Street Railway freight depot and several motorized boxcars were destroyed.
On the waterfront, Boston Fireboat #31 was overcome with the heavy liquid, sinking it right at the dock. Buildings were torn from their foundations, and a five-ton Mack truck was picked up and slammed into a building.
In a matter of minutes, several blocks of Boston’s North End were flooded to a depth of two to three feet, and countless buildings, vehicles, horses and bystanders were swept away. When the torrent finally settled, nearly 150 people were injured and 21 were killed – crushed or drown by molasses.
The resulting cleanup took weeks and more than 300 people. Crews used pressurized saltwater from a fireboat to wash the residue from the streets and sand to absorb the excess molasses.
According to witnesses, the water in that area of the harbor remained brown until summer. Others say that the molasses spread well beyond the North End disaster site due to the cleanup crews and sight-seers tracking it onto subway platforms, inside trains and streetcars, to pay telephone handsets, into homes, and across the city.
Today, a playground and baseball field stand on the grounds of the former Purity Distilling Company. There is a small plaque commemorating the disaster. Other than that, it is hard to believe the tranquil area was once the site of such a terrible tragedy – unless of course, it is a hot summer evening with the sweet smell of molasses on the breeze.