Marking the Great Molasses Flood 100th Anniversary

On Tuesday, January 15, a passerby placed a jar of molasses on the site of the Great Molasses Flood in remembrance of the 21 lives lost during the January 15, 1919 disaster that deluged the heavily populated North End neighborhood with 2.3 million gallons of molasses.

The Boston Parks and Recreation Department and University of Massachusetts commemorated the 100th anniversary of the catastrophe, when a five-story steel tank, located at 529 Commercial St., exploded under pressure. The 40-foot wave of molasses collapsed the Boston Elevated Railway tracks, crushed buildings, and swept away freight cars.

“One hundred years ago today a tragedy occurred resulting in the deaths of Bostonians,” said Joe Bagley, City Archeologist, while standing on the Langone Park pitching mound. “We’re gathered here today to stand where the 90-foot-tall tank collapsed.”

Ground-penetrating radar conducted by UMass, Boston, confirmed the remains of the tank’s foundation and other shipyard buildings 20 inches beneath the ground. Research scientist John Steinberg, PhD, and his team of undergraduate students measured the conductivity of the soil, using geophysics and old maps to identify the exact location of the tank  to determine where archeologists should dig: under the baseball diamond.

“This is a conductivity meter designed by the EPA to find toxic waste water. We’ve converted that technology and made it more sensitive to archeology,” explained Steinberg, Fiske Center for Archeological Research, University of Massachusetts.

Flags along the field marked the perimeter of the tank, where visitors lined and paused in a moment of silence following the reading of victims’ names.

“In the infield, you can see that the tank has left a shadow,” Steinberg described. “We send out an alternating current and we record the change in magnetic field.”

The quickly constructed tank was structurally defective, and from the beginning leaked from the seams. An unusually warm day contributed to the explosion that blasted steel segments and thousands of rivets into the vicinity, and suffocated victims — including horses — beneath 26 million pounds of molasses.

“When greed or ignorance outpaces rules and regulations tragedies occur. These tragedies reveal something else about our nature and the victims we commemorate: there were people who ran to help, spending weeks tirelessly looking for bodies of loved ones,” said Chris Cook, Parks and Recreation commissioner. “There were people who worked on rules and regulations to make sure that our buildings are safe.”

The event led to the biggest lawsuit in Massachusetts history, when the court ruled in favor of the victims, ages 10-76, resulting in reforms in building standards in Boston.

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