In January of 1919 Purity Distilling Company of Boston, maker of high-grade rum, was working three shifts a day in a vain attempt to outrun national Prohibition. The company’s huge iron tank along the water’s edge at 529 Commercial Street in the North End was filled with more than two million gallons of molasses. Pipes entering the tank were heated to aid the flow of the dense liquid. A solitary vent was the only outlet for the fermenting gases.
It was just after noon on January 15 when the great molasses tank exploded with a ground-shaking blast. Those nearby who survived the ensuing catastrophe reported strange noises coming from the tank just before it let go. “It was like someone was on the inside hammering to get out,” said one witness.
A massive tidal wave of molasses swept across Commercial Street, smashing into a house at 6 Copps Hill Terrace, demolishing the building and killing Mrs. Bridget Clougherty. The metal latticework of the Boston Elevated Railway Company’s Atlantic Avenue line, running above Commercial Street, was struck by a large chunk of the shattered tank. A section of the El collapsed. A quick-thinking motorman, seeing the rail disappear ahead of the train, dashed to the rear car and, with the steel wheels spinning, managed to get it headed in the opposite direction.
The Bay State Street Railway freight depot and several motorized boxcars were destroyed. On the waterfront, Boston Fireboat #31 was sunk at its dock with loss of life. A five-ton Mack truck was picked up by the wave of molasses and slammed into a building. The city paving department office and stable were erased within seconds, killing five men and a number of horses. Scores of buildings, vehicles and bystanders were swept away. In all, 11 people were killed and more than 50 injured by the initial explosion.
Click on the link for more, including numerous photographs. Residents of the area claim that on hot summer days you can still smell the aroma of molasses in the air. I’m pleased to note that unlike Meux’s Brewery, the Purity Distilling Company actually was found responsible for the accident, and had to pay compensation to the survivors.