LETTER: Molasses tank explosion in Boston remembered

January 22nd, 2017 10:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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SIR – I think what was an unusual disaster remembered on its 98th anniversary recently was the one in Boston on January 15th, 1919 when 21 people were killed by an explosion of molasses from a storage tank. It is remembered there, the same way the Titanic anniversary is here.

Victims fell and drowned in the flood of 2.3 million gallons at 35mph and about 25ft at its highest in the North End of the city. Rivets shot out of the tank like bullets and 150 people were injured. 

Horses smothered and buildings destroyed. A survivor said it was like being choked with goo. 

The dead included Bridget Clougherty aged 65, Peter Breen aged 44, William Duffy aged 58, John Callahan aged 43, Peter Shaughnessy aged 18 and the two youngest were aged 10.

The recovery took days. The clean-up was much longer (80,000 hours) and the harbour went brown from the clean up of molasses. The smell remained for months and some say they can still smell it on hot summer days.

One theory to its cause was a build up of carbon dioxide exploded the tank. Another, in a study in the September 2014 issue of Civil and Structural Magazine found the steel was too thin and of a type used in the Titanic. Steel manufacturers did not know a low amount of manganese could make the steel brittle. 

The tank was not reinforced due to pressure to have it made in 1916 as molasses was needed for munitions in WWI in Europe. It was in a populated area by the harbour, where ships from Cuba delivered the syrup. 18th century American patriot Paul Revere’s house is in the area.

The tank was filled nearly 30 times and to its fullest about four times. Author Stephen Puleo of Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 (2004, Beacon Press) wrote how it groaned and shuddered when filled.

Safety tests like filling with water to check for leaks were neglected and it was painted brown to disguise leaks. 

It led to better building standards and zoning laws in Boston and most of the US and to a first major class suit in the US. 

Families of those killed, the City of Boston and the Boston Elevated Railway Company received a settlement in 1925 from United States Industrial Alcohol Company. The site is today a public park. 

It sometimes takes a tragedy to ensure safety issues. A situation that has repeated around the world many times since.

Mary Sullivan,


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