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AP Was There: Boston’s ‘Great Molasses Flood’ of 1919

January 15, 2019
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FILE - In this Jan. 15, 1919, file photo, the ruins of tanks containing more than 2 million gallons of molasses lie in a heap after erupting along the waterfront in Boston's North End neighborhood. Several buildings were flattened in the disaster, which killed 21 people and injured 150 others. (AP Photo/File)
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FILE - In this Jan. 15, 1919, file photo, the ruins of tanks containing more than 2 million gallons of molasses lie in a heap after erupting along the waterfront in Boston's North End neighborhood. Several buildings were flattened in the disaster, which killed 21 people and injured 150 others. (AP Photo/File)

Boston’s Great Molasses Flood was one of the city’s deadliest and most bizarre disasters.

A tank containing 2.3 million gallons of molasses buckled, sending a tidal wave of the sticky stuff rampaging through a bustling North End neighborhood exactly 100 years ago Tuesday. Entire buildings were flattened, killing 21 people and injuring 150 others.

The Associated Press was there and published this story on Jan. 15, 1919, the day of the disaster. The toll of dead and injured was not fully known when it appeared.

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BOSTON, January 15 (AP) — Nine persons are known to have been killed and about fifty injured by the explosion of a huge tank of molasses on the water front off Commercial Street, near Keany Square, to-day.

Eight bodies were removed from the wreckage, and one man died at the relief hospital. Most of those injured suffered only from bruises.

The cause of the explosion has not been definitely determined. Walter L. Wedger, explosives expert, said that he was not prepared to give a final opinion, but that it seemed probable it resulted from gas fumes generated by fermenting molasses within the tank, which was not full.

The tank was owned by the Purity Distilling Company.

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A century ago a tank containing 2.3 million gallons of molasses ruptured, sending out a massive wave that flattened Boston's North End neighborhood in what became known as the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. (Jan. 14)

A dull, muffled roar gave but an instant’s warning before the top of the tank was blown into the air. The circular wall broke into two great segments of sheet iron.

Two million gallons of molasses rushed in a mighty stream over the streets, and converted them into a sticky mass, the wreckage of several small buildings smashed by the explosion.

The greatest mortality apparently occurred in one of the buildings of a city storage yard.

One of the sections of the tank wall fell on a fire house, crushing it.

One fireman was killed and two were injured.

The other half of the tank wall crashed against the structure of the Boston elevated railway in Commercial Street, damaging three spans.

Sailors from the United States ship Rockport, at a wharf near-by, were the first to assist after the explosion. They were quickly followed by surgeons of the navy stationed in the vicinity and members of the Red Cross.

A number of horses were killed. The street was strewn with debris, intermixed with molasses, and all traffic was stopped.

Scores of ambulances — army, navy, police, hospital and Red Cross — were quickly on the scene.

The work was greatly hampered by the oozing flood of molasses which covered the street and the surrounding district to a depth of several inches and slowly drained down into the harbor. To hasten this process the firemen turned on several streams of water. If a worker stood still for a minute he found himself glued to the ground.

A large party of Red Cross workers, women and girls, braved the tangled sticky mass to bring relief to the men. Wearing short skirts and puttees, they waded through the molasses and distributed hot coffee and doughnuts to the firemen, policemen, soldiers and sailors.

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Courtesy of the AP Corporate Archives.

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