Centennial of a Disaster: The Great Molasses Flood

Boston Globe front page, January 16, 1919, describing the molasses tank explosion.

Just past noon, one hundred years ago today, a storage tank owned by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. The 2.3 million gallons (8,706 tons) of molasses contained within it immediately started sweeping out like a tidal wave, destroying everything in its path.

Horses, wagons, automobiles, buildings, and even the elevated railway line were destroyed. 150 people were injured, and 21 are known to have been killed. The USIAC eventually paid damages equivalent to about $600,000 in today’s currency. And like so many of Boston’s tragedies, the end result was a change in codes across the country to increase safety and reign in corporations ignoring the dangers to peoples’ lives. This includes architects needing to show their work to governments, certified engineers needing to sign and seal plans, and municipal building inspectors needing to review projects before they are used. All were a result of the flood and the lawsuits filed in the aftermath.

Much has been written about the tragedy. For decades after the disaster one could smell molasses in the air during warmer weather. Those who died that day were just going about their business. Schoolchildren on lunch break. Workers in a paving yard. A fireman resting in the fire station. A housewife at home with her sons. Not everyone died immediately. Not all were found quickly. The body of one man, Cesar Nicolo, was not found until May 12, almost four months to the day after the tragedy. On this anniversary, we remember the victims:


  • Boston Globe story about Patrick Shaughnessy, eighteen-year-old victim of the molasses flood. Patrick Breen, 44, laborer
  • William Brogan, 61, teamster
  • Bridget Clougherty, 65, homemaker
  • Stephen Clougherty, 34, unemployed
  • John Callahan, 43, paver
  • Maria Di Stasio, 10, child
  • William Duffy, 58, laborer
  • Peter Francis, 64, blacksmith
  • Flaminio Gallerani, 37, driver
  • Pasquale Iantosca, 10, child
  • James H. Kenneally, laborer
  • Eric Laird, 17, teamster
  • George Layhe, 38, firefighter
  • James Lennon, 64, teamster/motorman
  • Ralph Martin, 21, driver
  • James McMullen, 46, foreman, Bay State Express
  • Cesar Nicolo, 32, expressman
  • Thomas Noonan, 43, longshoreman
  • Peter Shaughnessy, 18, teamster
  • John M. Seiberlich, 69, blacksmith
  • Michael Sinnott, 78, messenger

You can find out more about them in the Boston Globe, which also has some additional interesting coverage, with lots of illustrations.

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