11 January 2012

The Boston Molasses Disaster

We always attempt to be as forward facing as possible at Drink Factory. However there are a few occasions where however you might try, something in history demands you take a moment and give it the thought it warrants.

One such event may well be the Boston Molasses Distaster that occurred January 15th 1919. As the anniversary looms ever closer we thought it a a poignant occasion to share or remind you of the story that had a profound affect on American Distillers at the time.

Jamie Baxter tells the story. Jamie was a master distiller at Chase Distillery where he was responsible for designing, installing, commissioning, running and then developing products. He now works as a consultant, working around the UK and South America aiding in start up small scale artisan distilleries.

1917 was a difficult time for American distillers. State after state was backing prohibition and it would have been obvious that it was only a matter of time before the bill was ratified. Prohibition would ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages (with the exception of wine and cider made for home consumption) and so distilleries were to be effectively legislated out of business. Many of America’s distilleries disappeared when prohibition came into force. One was the Purity Distilling Company in Boston. It used to distil molasses from the Caribbean into rum, and in 1915 had built a huge great tank, 58 foot tall and with a 90 foot diameter giving a volume of 2.5 million gallons. Two years later, with prohibition looming, it sold out to United States Industrial Alcohol, a company that supplied industry with alcohol as a solvent and therefore would be able to continue to trade as long as the alcohol produced was rendered unfit to drink. At the end of 1918, a ship from Puerto Rico off-loaded 2.3 million gallons of molasses into the tank. I would estimate that this would weigh over 11,000 metric tonnes.

On January 15th 1919, the day before the prohibition bill was ratified, disaster struck as the tank ruptured and a tidal wave of hot, dense, sticky molasses swept through the Boston dock area at speeds estimated at 35mph. Men, women, children and horses were caught up in the wave and crushed. Lorries were flung through houses. An overhead train track was brought crashing down just after a train had passed. When the power of the wave had subsided, some unfortunate survivors of the initial flood were unable to escape the sticky mass and slowly slipped under the surface. The quote from Stephen Puleo describes the scene

"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"

It was so thick that rescuers could not make their way through it. The dead were still being found four days later, their bodies frozen in the position that they died. The final death toll was 21, with over 150 injured and a number of horses also killed. The clean-up operation took weeks and the Boston harbour area smelled of sweet molasses for decades afterwards.

The resultant hearings were the biggest in Massachusetts’ history. Eventually United States Industrial Alcohol was found responsible for the disaster as the safety factor was not great enough in the design of the tank. They were forced to pay almost $1 million in damages and the case has gone on to influence American law with respect to responsibility and negligence.

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