Boston marks the Great Molasses Flood 100 years ago

William J. Kole
Associated Press

Boston – Slow as molasses? This treacle didn’t trickle. It was a sticky, deadly tsunami that flattened an entire Boston neighborhood within seconds.

On Tuesday, the city marks the 100th anniversary of its most peculiar disaster – the Great Molasses Flood.

It struck without warning at midday on Jan. 15, 1919, when a giant storage tank containing more than 2.3 million gallons of molasses suddenly ruptured, sending a giant wave of goop crashing through the cobblestone streets of the bustling North End.

The initial wave rose at least 25 feet high – nearly as tall as an NFL goalpost – and it obliterated everything in its path, killing 21 people and injuring 150 others. Rivets popped like machine-gun fire. Elevated railway tracks buckled. Warehouses and firehouses were pushed around like game pieces on a Monopoly board. Tenements were reduced to kindling.

Outrunning the molasses was out of the question. The first of it raced through the harborside neighborhood at 35 mph. Not even Usain Bolt, who clocked just under 28 mph at his world-record fastest, could have sprinted to safety.

And yet a century later, the catastrophe remains mired in relative obscurity.

“When you first hear of it, the molasses gives the entire event this unusual whimsical quality. The substance itself kind of begs some incredulity,” said historian Stephen Puleo, author of “Dark Tide,” a book about the disaster.

“People’s first reaction is, ‘Are you serious? Did that really happen?’ If it were fire or flood or famine or pestilence, this story would be much better known,” he said.

The tragedy struck as World War I troops were returning from Europe.

The tank was owned by the Purity Distilling Co., and its syrupy contents were used mostly to make alcohol for wartime munitions but also to produce rum before Prohibition kicked in. In a stroke of irony, on the day after the disaster, Nebraska became the decisive 36th state to ratify the 18th Amendment outlawing the production, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages.