When Sweets Are REALLY Bad for You

Since we’re already talking syrup and molasses I should note that today is the 96th anniversary of the Great Boston Molasses Disaster, which happened on January 15, 1919. On that fateful day a two-and-a-half million gallon tank of molasses located at the Purity Distilling Company in the North End of Boston burst, sending a 25-foot wave of sticky death hurtling down Commercial Street at some 35 miles per hour. How molasses could reach that speed (and viscosity) in the middle of a January day I don’t know. But then it was a hell of a lot of molasses. The wave demolished buildings, train tracks and conveyances, killed 21 people and injured 159.

How it all happened is still something of a mystery. Though most experts at the time were convinced that the collapse was a result of shoddy workmanship and an over-filled tank, the company pinned the blame on anarchists. Cleanup crews spent weeks wading through knee-deep goo, using firehoses to wash the molasses into Boston Harbor, which remained brown until May. Streets and sidewalks were blackened for blocks around as workmen tracked the molasses along streets and sidewalks and onto train and subway platforms. It was said that every sidewalk bench and telephone handset in the city was sticky for a month.

Some Bostonians claim that on a hot summer day you can still smell it.

11 thoughts on “When Sweets Are REALLY Bad for You”

  1. I just heard a story about American ex-pats in Costa Rica to who pay workers to dilute molasses and coat their unpaved streets with it. Seems in the dry summer clouds of dust including destructive silica envelope the area and make breathing difficult and risky. The solution is a coating of non-polluting molasses that traps the dust and washes away when the rains take over dust abatement duties.

    The reporter said the town smelled like gingerbread and the molasses splashes up the back of your legs when you walk on it.

    Not as destructive or dramatic as The Great Boston Molasses Disaster but a happy combination of cheap available resources and some Yankee ingenuity. (maybe even Boston Yankees, who knows…)

  2. Yes, that is quite a show of ingenuity. But the phrase “Boston Yankees” really gave me quite a jolt! 🙂

  3. Ah… commemoration of a great event that is almost on par with Patriot’s Day. I think my ancestors are still trying to get that sticky stuff off the soles of their shoes to keep it from tracking into the house.

    1. Do you really have family stories about that? If so do tell!

      Cheers and thanks!

      – Joe

  4. I first read about this as a child. Fascinating tragedy. Features in Dane Huckelbridge’s entertaining “Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit.”

    1. Very interesting. In a bourbon history book you say. I may need to find that!


      – Joe

  5. My guess, from what I remember of fluid mechanics, is that a large enough mass of molasses could reach that kind of speed: 2 million+ gallons of molasses is a *lot* of mass, and flowing downhill could build up quite a lot of momentum – even though the internal viscous forces act to slow it down. Imagine how fast an equal amount of water following the same path would move!

    (I could get all technical and start calculating Reynolds numbers and such…but this is a pastry discussion, not engineering 🙂 )

    1. I’ll give the floor to anyone with a story to tell, Jane, whiteboard or no. Thanks for weighing in here!

      Your friend,

      – Joe

  6. A number of horses were inextricably stuck in the goo, and had to be shot where they were. That must have added to the — unique — odor.

    1. Yes I think something like 20 horses died in the, er…calamity. Bech…what a mess.

      Thanks, Jean!

      – Joe

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