Historic Foodways Society of the Delaware Valley

Dedicated to the Preservation and Understanding of Food History

Spotlight on Food History

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The Sticky Science Behind the Deadly Boston Molasses Disaster


Nearly 100 years after the massive molasses tank ruptured, scientists are finally discussing out how this tragedy occurred


By Jason Daley                                     







Slow as molasses isn’t just a saying—

the byproduct of sugar production is

usually sticky and viscous, even at

room temperature. So historians and

scientists have long been stumped by 

Boston's 1919  Great Molasses Flood.



Ethan Trex at Mental Floss reports that on January 15, 1919, a massive molasses holding tank in Boston’s north end owned by the Purity Distilling Company, which used the treacle to produce alcohol, ripped open. A 2.3-million-gallon, 26-million-pound wave of the sticky stuff rolled down Commercial Street as fast as 35 miles per hour. It smashed houses and buildings and knocked a firehouse off its foundation. In the end, the sticky tsunami killed 21 people and severely injured 150. By one estimate, Trex reports, it caused $100 million in damage in today’s dollars.


Though an anarchist terrorist attack was first blamed for the calamity, investigators soon pointed at the holding tank’s shoddy construction. But the question has remained, why did the molasses explode as a wave and not just slowly drip out of the tank? A group of students at Harvard investigated the event and presented their conclusions at recent meeting of the American Physical Society.






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Page Update March 1, 2017


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Susan Luczu—Webmaster—2014-2017

It’s not the first time researchers have looked into the

Great Molasses Flood. Last year, an engineer who

researched the construction of the holding tank

concluded that it was 50 percent too thin to hold 2.3 million gallons of molasses, reports Peter Schworm at The Boston Globe. Though Purity Distilling was found liable for the accident after a three-year trial, and poor construction was to blame, until this study nobody knew exactly why the tank burst.


Stephen Puleo, author of Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 tells Schworm that the tank was a problem from the beginning and was never properly inspected. The company actually changed the color of the tank from blue to brown-red to cover its leaks.