On January 15th, 1919, in the north end of Boston, a 50 foot tall tank of molasses burst open and flooded the streets with the sticky sweet stuff. While it sounds like an alternate ending for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, the effect of the 25 foot tall tidal wave of sweetener was anything but delicious.
Molasses was then the standard for sweetener in the US and was used to ferment rum and even create munitions. Some authors suggest the tank was overfull due to increased alcohol production as the owners tried to outrace the upcoming prohibition laws about to take effect Regardless, as the tank began to fail, witnesses claimed to hear sounds like a machine gun firing that were the overstressed rivets exploding out of the structure. As the tank ruptured, the giant wave moved through the streets at 35 miles an hour (so much for ‘slow as molasses’) ….
From the Boston Post at the time: “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise.”
The force of the wave caused people and vehicles to be hurled into the air, railway cars to topple, and ultimately killed 21 people and injured 150. Some of the corpses were so glazed in molasses they were near-unrecognizable. Eventually, clean up crews used salt water to clear the molasses away and sand to absorb it but it took weeks to clean up just the immediate area of the disaster; the outlying areas took much longer. Even the clean-up effort tracked molasses throughout the rest of the city: “Everything a Bostonian touched was sticky”.
The property where the tank once stood is now the site of a recreational complex but it has a marker to remind Bostonians of the horrible day of the killer sweets. Locals still claim that on a hot summer day, the area still smells strongly of molasses.