Lessons from the Great Molasses Flood

The Great Boston Molasses Flood. Wreckage of the collapsed tank visible in background, center, next to light colored warehouse. Photo credit:  Wikipedia

I didn’t write yesterday about the centenary of the Great Boston Molasses Flood, despite it being right in my disaster wheelhouse.  I was actually waiting to see how the anniversary was covered and to give some thoughts as to the lessons it is still teaching.  This is a disaster that is easy, on the surface, to laugh at: A 50′ high tank of molasses explodes, sending 2.3 million gallons of sticky sludge, 25′ high and 160′ wide,  moving at 35 miles an hour, through a densely-populated part of Boston.  Sounds rather silly, doesn’t it?  A big sticky mess?  Absolutely–but molasses is much denser than water, and the flood resulted in 21 deaths and 150 injured, and two city blocks “looking like they had been bombed.” Damage is estimated to have cost $100 million in today’s US dollars.  In the cold weather, the molasses thickened and hardened, making rescues and clearing of debris even more difficult.

Indeed, NBC News posted a detailed article about the disaster that you can read here.  Atlas Obscura also has written an excellent article with a number of images of the disaster. The Hamilton Spectator published a piece last week about the disaster and the fact that there are still huge tanks of molasses to be found right here in Hamilton–but pains are taken now to make sure the molasses is stored at a proper temperature in proper tanks.  That was the lesson learned in 1919, because the disaster was no freak accident (although the company that owned it tried to claim the explosion was the result of sabotage by anarchists). The 50′ tank that exploded had been defective from the start–it was too thin and leaked. But no permits had ever been required for the tank, despite its size, because it was considered a receptacle rather than a building.  No architects or engineers were engaged to build it, and the man who supervised its construction could not even read blueprints.  Stephen Puleo, author of a book on the disaster, noted that this changed immediately as a result of the disaster.  Puleo, as quoted in the NBC article, said “shortly after the flood, the Boston Building Department began requiring that all calculations of engineers and architects be filed with their plans and that stamped drawings be signed.”  These rules soon became standard in the US, and led to the professionalization of engineering.

The lesson here that was learned–but yet, still seems to escape some–is that even innocuous-seeming things like thick, sugary goo can cause catastrophic damage to property and human lives.  Regulation saves lives.  Sometimes it takes a disaster to bring home the catastrophic cost of cutting corners–and such disasters are still occurring (I will write about one of the worst, the Sampoong Department Store collapse, in a future post).