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Strangest Disasters in American History : The Boston Molasses Disaster

Strangest Disasters in American History : The Boston Molasses Disaster

At 12:40 p.m. on January 15, 1919, in Boston’s industrial North End, a 50-foot-high steel storage tank containing more than two million gallons of molasses collapsed, sending an immense wave of thick, viscous goo sweeping through the city streets as fast as 35 miles per hour.

The wave – initially fifty feet high and 160 feet wide, according to some witnesses – exerted enough force to snap the steel girders of an elevated railway structure and temporarily lift a train off its tracks. Within seconds, the force of the blast and ensuing tsunami crushed cars, trucks, horses, dogs, and steel trolleys in its path, demolished several buildings, including a fire station that was flattened by a massive chunk of the tank, and decimated two full city blocks.

Witnesses later stated that as the tank collapsed there was “a dull, rumbling sound, like machine gun fire,” and that “the ground shook as if a train were passing by.” In all, the disaster left 150 injured, and 21 dead, mostly by crushing or asphyxiation.

“HUGE MOLASSES TANK EXPLODES IN NORTH END” read the Boston Post’s front-page headline the next day. The accompanying article described the disaster this way: “a 50-foot wave of molasses—2,300,000 gallons of it—released in some manner yet unexplained, from a giant tank, swept over Commercial street and its waterfront from Charter street to the southerly end of North End park yesterday afternoon. Ensnaring in its sticky flood more than 100 men, women, and children; crushing buildings, teams, automobiles, and street cars—everything in its path—the black, reeking mass slapped against the side of the buildings footing Copp’s Hill and then swished back toward the harbor.”

More horrible details followed: 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.

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