Without Warning, Molasses Surged Over Boston 100 Years Ago

As the city was planning its heroes’ welcome for sons returning from World War I, a frightful flood devastated a vast area of the North End

Great Molasses Flood 1919
People on the scene of the 2.3-million-gallon molasses explosion in Boston's North End The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Editor's note, January 14, 2019: In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Great Boston Molasses Flood, we are publishing online for the first time a story from our November 1983 issue. Written by native Bostonian Edwards Park, a longtime contributor to Smithsonian, this chronicle of the deadly disaster details the lasting effects that the tragedy had on the city.

When I was a boy in Boston and had reached a sufficiently sophisticated age, I was allowed to go downtown by myself. I was finally deemed capable of handling the ancient subway system and the narrow, clogged streets, and I responded by making ritualistic expeditions from the boring security of the Back Bay to the perilous excitements of Washington Street. This was my Gobi Desert, my Mountains of the Moon, my Tarzan Country.

My target was always Iver Johnson's, the famous old sporting-goods store that captured the hearts of Boston lads in those days. It faced on Washington Street near the edge of Scollay Square, that opening in the cow-path streets where stood the Old Howard, a burlesque theater famous for supplementing the curricula of Harvard students. "Always Something Doing, One to Eleven, at the Old Howard" read its ads in the Boston Globe, followed by the titillating phrase, "25 Beautiful Girls 25." Scollay Square was off limits to me, and no wonder.

But Iver Johnson's was a wholesome interest. There I could wander through aisles flanked by baseball bats; through thickets of split-bamboo fly rods and stubbles of short, steel bait-casting rods (fiber-glass rods and spinning reels were as yet unknown); through an arsenal of rifles and shotguns, blue steel barrels glinting against the warm-grained walnut stocks; and through a long array of heavy woolen winter clothes and thick leather hunting boots. Boys were under constant surveillance by supercilious clerks. I remember how surprised one of them was the day I actually bought something, but no matter. This was a place in which to build dreams.

Iver Johnson's displayed some of its own items in the window that overlooked Washington Street. Sleds shiny with varnish. Also, as I remember, a little .22 revolver. And bicycles. My two older brothers had both been given Iver Johnson bikes, and one of these fine old 28-inch wheelers was reposing in our basement, heavy with dust. It was supposed to be handed down to me, but there was now too much traffic in the Back Bay, even on Sunday mornings, for a kid to learn how to handle a big bike. I went without—and so learned to hate many aspects of modernity.

The way to reach Iver Johnson's was to take the subway to Park Street and walk northeast to a wonderful little byway called Cornhill, which pitched downward to Washington Street. You could smell Cornhill before you reached it because at its upper end was the Phoenix, a coffee-house marked by the aroma of freshly ground beans. The rich scent filled the streets around and lured customers by the score.

Along with the coffee smell was another, equally pervading. One could discern throughout much of downtown Boston, and especially around the North End, the unmistakable aroma of molasses.

As a boy, I never questioned that odor, so strong on hot days, so far-reaching when the wind came out of the east. It was simply part of Boston, along with the swan boats in the Public Garden and the tough kids swimming in the Frog Pond on the common. But years later, when I was on the staff of the Boston Globe, I asked a colleague about it. We were walking over toward the North End, beyond Hanover Street, and our taste buds were guiding us toward one of the corner trattorias where North End Italians make, I swear, the world's finest pizza, and for once I was annoyed by that other smell—the Boston smell.

"Why does Boston smell of molasses?" I asked my friend.

He looked at me curiously. "Because of the molasses flood, of course," he said.

"Molasses flood?"

"Yeah. The thing we do special stories on every ten years. Haven't you worked on one yet?"

I admitted I had not. And then the little restaurant came into view and we entered and sat down to pizza and kitchen tumblers of cellar-made Italian wine. And I forgot molasses for a number of years.

My old paper did short memory pieces about the Great Boston Molasses Flood on ten-year anniversaries of the event, which occurred in 1919. I didn't happen to work there in a year that had a nine at the end of it, and so remained largely ignorant about the original disaster. Older friends and relatives recalled it, but not very accurately, or in much detail. To learn more, I recently dug into the files of the Globe and pieced together fragile bits of brown newsprint as best I could...

Without Warning, Molasses Surged Over Boston 100 Years Ago
Part of the front page of the Boston Daily Globe on January 16, 1919, the day after the Great Molasses Flood. Boston Daily Globe, in the Boston Public Library, CC BY 2.0

Copp's Hill. It rises beside the conflux of the Charles River and Boston's inner harbor. It looks across at the yardarms of the U.S.S. Constitution—"Old Ironsides"—moored at the Boston Naval Shipyard over at Charlestown. A full-size American car trying to negotiate the side streets of Copp's Hill will probably bark its whitewalls on both curbs. At the foot of the hill, at Salem Street, is the Old North Church where two lanterns were hung as a signal to Paul Revere, and in a little park next to the church is a statue of Revere himself. Old men sit by the statue on sunny days, playing checkers and arguing dramatically in Italian. Copp's Hill is right there in the North End, Boston's Little Italy.

Commercial Street. It loops around the salient of Copp's Hill from the Charlestown Bridge, east and south, to link with Atlantic Avenue. It roars with traffic—and it did so in 1919, but with different sounds. Instead of the thunder of today's diesels, there was the unmuffled blat of loaded lorries with solid rubber tires, the endless clop of work horses pulling freight wagons and, over all, the roar of the relatively new elevated railway—the "El"—that for years kept Commercial Street in shadow.

On the water side of Commercial Street, opposite Copp's Hill, there stood in 1919 a giant storage tank. It had been built four years before by the Purity Distilling Company—massively constructed, with great curved steel sides and strong bottom plates set into a concrete base and pinned together with a stitching of rivets. It was built to hold molasses, that old Colonial commodity that stirs school-day memories of the "triangle trade": slaves from Africa to the West Indies; molasses from the West Indies to New England; rum, made from the molasses, back across the Atlantic for a cargo of slaves. The old triangle had long been broken by 1919, but New England still made (and makes) rum, as well as baked beans, and the molasses for both still came (and comes) north from the Caribbean and New Orleans. In 1919, Boston's Purity tank could hold about two and a half million gallons of the stuff.

January 15, 1919. The weather had been mild for Boston—close to 40 degrees Fahrenheit—and the streets were bare of snow.

Two months before, the Great War (to end all wars) had ended, and the Yankee Division, the 26th, was coming home soon. That bloody adventure was over, and the nation was about to enter a great experiment—Prohibition. One more state was needed to ratify the 18th Amendment, and a vote was scheduled the next day. With an eye perhaps to the future, Purity Distilling Company had sold out in 1917 to United States Industrial Alcohol. Thus that huge molasses tank, 50 feet tall and some 90 feet in diameter, could legally continue to supply alcohol to industry.

The big Boston tank was just about full. A ship from Puerto Rico had brought its contents up to about 2,300,000 gallons a few days before.

At noon on this January day, work around the molasses tank routinely slowed as laborers took time out for their sandwiches and coffee. Men paused to eat and chat in a shack owned by the Paving Department, whcih shared the open area where the tank stood. Others were doing the same at the quarters of a Boston Fire Department fireboat on the waterfront side of the tank.

They were most probably discussing baseball—Boston had won the World Series in 1918—and a new film called Shoulder Arms which was Charlie Chaplin's satire on life in the trenches. They probably mentioned politics, for President Wilson was in Europe trying to get a peace treaty based on his Fourteen Points. Moreover, Theodore Roosevelt had died only two weeks before, and like him or not, you had to admire the man, even if you were a Boston day laborer.

They would certainly have been hashing over Boston's own politics, ever a fascinating subject. Ex-Mayor John J. Fitzgerald was by now out of the picture and these workmen probably said, "More's the pity," for "Honey Fitz" never lost sight of his Irishness and seemed a darlin' man to the workers, despite all the stories of graft. One of his grandsons—the one named for him: John Fitzgerald Kennedy—would be two years old in May. Fitzgerald himself had been born in the North End back when it was Irish and not yet Italian.

And certainly the flu epidemic would have been on the tongues of these workers. It took some 20 million lives around the world, more than half a million in the United States. There was nothing a man could do about it, it seemed, except go regularly to church and burn a few candles. But these men needn't have worried about the flu that day, for their own particular disaster was on the way.

At about 12:30, with a sound described as a sort of muffled roar, the giant molasses tank came apart. It seemed to rise and then split, the rivets popping in a way that reminded many ex-soldiers of machine-gun fire. And then a wet, brown hell broke loose, flooding downtown Boston.

Spill a jar of kitchen molasses. Then imagine an estimated 14,000 tons of the thick, sticky fluid running wild. It left the ruptured tank in a choking brown wave, 15 feet high, wiping out everything that stood in its way. One steel section of the tank was hurled across Commercial Street, neatly knocking out one of the uprights supporting the El. An approaching train screeched to a stop just as the track ahead sagged into the onrushing molasses.

When the molasses wave hit houses, they "seemed to cringe up as though they were made of pasteboard," wrote one reporter. The Clougherty home at the foot of Copp's Hill collapsed around poor Bridget Clougherty, killing her instantly. And when pieces of the tank hit a structure, they had the effect of shellfire. One jagged chunk smashed the freight house where some of the lunchers had been working.

The great brown wave caught and killed most of the nearby laborers. The fireboat company quarters was splintered. A lorry was blasted right through a wooden fence, and a wagon driver was found later, dead and frozen in his last attitude like a figure from the ashes of Pompeii.

welding molasses barrel
On January 20, 1919, a welder cuts the molasses tank to search for the bodies of those who lost their lives in the explosion and ensuing flood. The Boston Globe via Getty Images

How fast is molasses in January? That day the wave moved at an estimated 35 miles per hour. It caught young children on their way home from the morning session of school. One of them, Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn't answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his sisters staring at him. (Another sister had been killed.) They had found little Anthony stretched under a sheet on the "dead" side of a body-littered floor.

The death toll kept rising, day after day. Two bodies showed up four days after the tank burst. They were so battered and glazed over by the molasses that identification was difficult. The final count was 21 dead, 150 injured, a number of horses killed. The molasses wave, after spreading out, covered several blocks of downtown Boston to a depth of two or three feet. Although rescue equipment was quick to arrive on the scene, vehicles and rescue workers on foot could barely get through the clinging muck that filled the streets.

A news reporter later remembered seeing Red Cross volunteers, Boston debutantes in smart gray uniforms with spotless white shirtwaists and shiny black puttees, step determinedly into the deep brown muck. In a second they were gooey and bedraggled, plunging through the flood that sucked at their puttees.

Apparently one reason the ambulances arrived so soon was that a policeman was at his corner signal box, making a call to his precinct, when he glanced down the street and saw the brown tide slithering toward him. You can hear in your mind his gasp into the phone: "Holy Mother iv God! Sind iverythin' you can—somethin' tirrible has happened!"

Most of the facts about the Great Molasses Flood emerged in the findings of the lawsuits that swamped Boston after the event and were just as sticky as the molasses. Litigation took six years, involved some 3,000 witnesses and so many lawyers that the courtroom couldn't hold them all.

The reason for the lawsuits was disagreement as to the nature of the disaster. What in the world had caused it? Three explanations arose: there had been an explosion inside the tank (in which case the fermentation of the molasses would be to blame); there had been a bomb set off (not so wild a possibility in those early days of Bolshevism—bombs had already blasted a few American industrial plants); there had been a structural failure of the four-year-old tank (which made United States Industrial Alcohol liable).

Eventually the court found that the tank had ruptured simply because the "factor of safety" was too low. In other words, inspections hadn't been tough enough. The company was held to blame for the horror. Settlements of more than 100 claims were made out of court. Industrial Alcohol paid off between $500,000 and $1,000,000. Survivors of those killed reportedly got about $7,000 per victim.

Molasses is the main byproduct of the manufacture of sugar from sugar cane. It results from the continued boiling of cane juice—reminiscent of the boiling off of maple sap to produce maple syrup. When enough reboiling has gone on to wrench every bit of sugar out of the molasses, the resulting viscous liquid is blackstrap, the extra-thick molasses used as an additive in cattle feed. It provides valuable carbohydrates in the diet of a cow.

Back in 1919 you couldn't have given the product away in Boston. The gluey chaos caused by the flood was cleaned up by hosing the area with salt water from fireboats and then covering the streets with sand. The trouble was that all the rescue workers, clean-up crews and sight-seers, squelching through the molasses, managed to distribute it all over Greater Boston. Boots and clothing carried it into the suburbs. Molasses coated streetcar seats and public telephones. Everything a Bostonian touched was sticky. There is a report that molasses even got as far as Worcester. Certainly the inner harbor turned brown as the hoses washed the goo into the bay.

As the rescue workers and clean-up crews tackled the incredible mess the night of January 16, they paused in puzzlement at the sudden ringing of church bells all over downtown Boston. Nebraska had voted on the 18th Amendment and ratified it. Prohibition was law, and churches which had campaigned for it in their pulpits now celebrated. Men up to their ankles in the makings of rum listened for a moment and went back to work.

The smell of molasses remained for decades a distinctive, unmistakable atmosphere of Boston. My boyhood association of the sweet aroma, mingled with the fragrance of coffee from the Phoenix, led me into a habit I still enjoy, though most other people seem to shun it: I invariably sweeten my first cup of early morning coffee with a teaspoonful of dark molasses. To me, the two go together.

But the Phoenix coffeehouse did not prove as permanent as the morning ritual it inspired. It was sacrificed to the great rebuilding of the inner city which took place mostly in the 1960s, and, unlike its namesake, it has not risen again. Even Cornhill has gone. Even the Old Howard. Even Iver Johnson's. And finally, even the smell of molasses. I passed the site of the catastrophe recently and found that there is little to show for it. Copp's Hill is the same as ever, but the El is gone, and the old waterfront, once so messy with decrepit warehouses, has been largely redesigned and landscaped. Where the great doomed tank once stood, there is a park filled with swings, slides and the shouts of children, and next to it, an enclosed recreation center.

A retrospective account of the flood indicated that the "high molasses mark" could still be seen on walls and buildings in the area. I looked and saw a dark stain—but it was just a city stain with nothing to indicate that the gush of molasses had lapped that high and painted the stone brown. I couldn't even find a plaque, not the merest marker to remember the 15th of January, 1919. I sniffed at the dark stain. Nothing.

But as I get older, early impressions express themselves suddenly and in strange ways. And as everyone knows, nothing is more nostalgic than a smell or a taste. One morning, not long before I started looking into the story of the flood, I was drinking my early coffee, hot and delicious, with just that faint touch of molasses to give it special meaning. And inexplicably I said, "I wish I had a bicycle."

"What on Earth for?" my wife asked me.

"I don't really know, come to think of it," I answered.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.