Boston’s Deadly Molasses Flood Still Grabs Our Attention

Some Bostonians claim that on a warm day you can still smell molasses. Why? Because 100 years ago today an incredible scene unfolded. A 15-foot wave of molasses rushed at speeds of more than 30 mph through Boston’s densely populated North End neighborhood. Have you heard the expression Slow as molasses? On this winter day on Copps Hill, molasses moved very quickly—and dangerously. In fact, it was deadly. Twenty-one people died, and more than a hundred were injured when a giant tank of molasses exploded.

Molasses has been prominent in the Boston area for centuries. In addition to being a distinctive ingredient in baked beans, pies, and brown bread, molasses was central to the production of rum. In the 18th century, this was a booming industry for the early American colonists. 

But it wasn’t rum or beans that warranted this massive tank of molasses. It was the first world war. At the time (1915) the United States wasn’t engaged in the combat, but we were playing a strategic and supportive role. And molasses was central to it. The molasses could be distilled into industrial alcohol and used as a key ingredient in the production of ammunition, especially dynamite and other high explosives. As things escalated and intensified, the demand increased. And because of its strategic shipping point, Boston was a choice location for this important molasses tank. From here in Boston the material could be shipped to nearby Cambridge for production. 

What sounded good on paper did not work out in practice. Crunched by tight time constraints and increased demands, the project was handicapped. But more than this, it was the lack of attention to detail and concern for the well-being of others that doomed this plan. 

The lead on the project knew that to test the tank for leaks he would have to fill it with town water. Well, more than 2 million gallons of water would be expensive. To save money, he just filled it up six inches, right above the first angle joint at its base. Since they discovered no leaks, the tank was signed off on and deemed ready to be filled with molasses. On New Year’s Eve, a tanker with more than 700,000 gallons of molasses arrived. The tank was filled 13 feet high. 

This process of filling continued for three years. The massive tank wasn’t a reassuring monument to engineering and safety standards for residents. Neighbors remarked how they often heard a sound similar to thunder coming from the tank. They also saw molasses leaking out of the side of the tank. It was so common to see molasses dripping down the tank that residents—most of them Italian immigrants—would send their children down to the tank with a can to fill with the free molasses. This was a nice compliment to a can of beans or a tasty treat on the end of a stick. And what did the distilling company do when they found out it was leaking? They painted over it. 

Then that fateful day in January 1919 arrived. Over the lunch hour, the tank exploded. An unbelievable sight accompanied the loud noise. A wave of molasses nearly two dozen feet high raced through the neighborhood at speeds of 35 miles per hour. The molasses blanketed several blocks with more than a foot of the sticky mud. Buildings were demolished, and the elevated rail that connected North and South Station was knocked out. But not before 21 people died and 111 were injured. (You can look at some of the pictures here.)

Living in Boston, this is something I’ve thought about a lot. I think about how lives were lost and others were forever changed because of this tremendous tragedy. I also think about how it seems like it was preventable if there was more attention to detail and concern for others. This certainly motivates me to pause and evaluate whether I love others by giving thoughtful consideration to the details of what I do and how I do them.

But also, being a pastor and one who tends to spiritualize nearly everything, I can’t help but think about the need to protect people from eternal disaster. It’s eerily ironic that the name of the distillery was The Purity Distilling Company. Purity! It was anything but pure. This tank had an appearance of something remarkable. It even boasted so by its name. However, in reality, it brought death and destruction. Paul warns Timothy about religious people who “have the appearance of godliness, but deny its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). Jesus warns about religious leaders who are nothing more than white-washed tombs (Matt. 23:27). They look on the outside like the real thing but are shams who are dangerous to those they come in contact with. Like the massive molasses tank, they have a veneer of soundness, but in reality, they are dangerous. So, Paul writes, “avoid such people” (2 Tim. 3:5). Instead, follow the Scriptures and the apostolic pattern that has been laid down (2 Tim. 3:10-11). Follow it carefully and don’t deviate from it knowing that it is how God protects and even saves his people (2 Tim. 3:14-15). This is why it is the Bible that must be held high in the pulpit and the lives of God’s people (2 Tim. 4:1ff). The connection to false teachers and the danger they bring compels me to study faithfully, pray, apply, and proclaim God’s Word—even while examining my own life carefully (1 Tim. 4:16).

The great molasses flood of 1919 reminds us again that in a post-Genesis 3 world there are no shortages of ways in which we might encounter disaster. Our only true and lasting safety is found by resting upon the unchanging Word of God and the salvation God provides through Jesus Christ. 

(Note: if you would like to read more about the events surrounding the molasses flood, this is a good book.)