YOU will have heard of something that’s very difficult being described as “like wading through treacle”, but imagine facing a 25ft high wave of the stuff coming at you at 35mph.
That’s the horrifying sight which faced people in part of Boston, Massachusetts, 100 years ago today, when an exploding storage tank sent 2.3 million gallons of molasses cascading through surrounding streets. Twenty-one people died in the disaster, while more than 150 were injured.
Molasses, also called ‘black treacle’, is a viscous, sweet, sticky fluid made as a by-product of refining sugarcane into sugar. It is used as an ingredient for sweetening or flavouring other foods, or can be fermented into ethanol, the active ingredient in various alcoholic drinks and a key component in munitions manufacture.
In Boston, Massachusetts, close to the harbour was the Purity Distilling Company, a business specialising in producing ethanol from molasses. This process required large quantities of molasses, stored in a huge tank made from sheets riveted steel. Standing 50ft tall and measuring 90ft in diameter, it contained 2.3 million US gallons of molasses, but at 12-30pm on Wednesday January 15th, 1919, the tank exploded.
It is thought a rapid rise in the outside temperatures, from well below freezing for the previous few days to 4°C on the 15th, weakened the steel of the tank, which in any case was only half the thickness it should have been for a container of that size. Witnesses reported that as the tank began to collapse, they felt the ground shake and heard a long, drawn-out groaning sound. It was followed by a tremendous crashing, a deep growling sound and a bang like a thunderclap as the tank finally gave way. Others reported hearing a sound like machine gun fire as rivets rapidly shot out of the tank.
The collapse unleashed a wave of molasses rushing out of the tank at up to 35mph and reaching a height of 25ft at its peak. It swept away anything in its path, including vehicles and buildings, and moved with enough force to damage the girders supporting a section of the Boston Elevated Railway, tipping a railroad car off the tracks.
Several blocks around the Purity Distilling Company were flooded with thick sticky molasses to a depth of two to three feet and the air was thick with a sickly sweet smell. A report in the following day’s Boston Post newspaper said: “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage.”
Tragically, several people were also caught in the path of the molasses tidal wave, along with many horses. Some were killed by the sheer force of the wave while others were crushed against buildings and other structures. Others simply drowned in the syrupy fluid, which grew thicker and harder to escape from as it rapidly cooled. Initial reports put the number of dead at 11, with 50 hurt, but some bodies were not recovered for several days. The final death toll was 21, with 150 people injured.
Even those who survived found it hard to climb out of the cloying morass, while others waded in to help victims. First on the scene were 116 cadets from the training ship USS Nantucket, docked in the harbour. They and other volunteers waded into the now-receding mass of molasses to pull out survivors, managing to revive some at first thought dead by clearing the goo from their faces.
It was exhausting work, but reinforcements from the Boston Police Department began to arrive, together with doctors and nurses from the city. Many worked through the night and an emergency hospital was set up in a nearby warehouse to treat the injured. Four days passed before the search for victims was finally called off. Some of the dead were so thickly glazed over in molasses that even close relatives struggled to identify them.
Clean-up crews used saltwater pumped through hoses from a fireboat in the harbour to wash away the molasses. In other areas, workers mixed sand into the molasses so it could be shovelled away. The job took weeks, with more than 300 people contributing to the effort. They, plus rescuers and sightseers, also carried the molasses farther afield on their boots and clothing, spreading it to subway platforms, the insides of trains and streetcars, into their homes and countless other places.
For a time, it was said that “everything a Bostonian touched was sticky”. Much of the molasses washed into the harbour, which stayed brown until mid-summer, and for years, even decades afterwards, residents swore that on hot summer days the whole area smelled of sweet molasses.
Serious structural defects in the storage tank, combined with the sudden rise in temperature causing fermentation to start inside it, were blamed for the disaster. It was noted that before the disaster the tank leaked so badly that it had to be painted brown to hide the molasses stains, while local people helped themselves to leaking molasses to use in their homes. Spurious claims by its owners that the tank had been “blown up by anarchists” were quickly dismissed and the company paid around $7,000 to the family of each victim (around $101,000 in today’s money).