Ninety-nine years ago –which, children, I cannot directly recall –a flood of molasses surged through North Boston, destroying buildings, damaging the El tracks and killing 21 people and many horses. Scores were also injured, and rescue and cleanup were overwhelming.

“Boston Molasses Disaster” sounds like a joke, or a hoax, or even the name of a dystopian band, but it was an immense event with long repercussions.

It was a midwinter New England day, and life in the area was going on as normal when a series of loud pops, as if from gutshots, startled people in the dock area of the city. The sound were made by rivets breaking from the steel walls of a large molasses holding tank owned by the Purity Distilling Company. The flood erupted from the 50-foot tall structure and, at an estimated 35 mph, poured into the area in a two-story high surge. The tank had been filled a few days before, and so was nearly full – over 2 million gallons were let loose. The flood swept away everything in its path. It snapped power poles so that live electrical wires hampered rescuers. In addition, the suddenly expelled rivets acted like bullets, spraying the immediate area with steel shot.

The molasses had been warmed to facilitate transfer from ship to holding tank, and additionally had probably started to ferment, which kept the temperature up. But as soon as the liquid hit the winter air, it began to thicken (remember the old line about “slower than molasses in January?”) It formed a viscous layer akin to quicksand, leading one reporter to describe horses as perishing like flies on flypaper. Victims were sucked under and died of suffocation. Devastation ran for some blocks, and discomfort for many more (as people came and went a sticky residue was transferred all over the city).

Of course none of the neighborhoods affected were habitats of the upper crust. The Lowells and Lodges – who spoke only to Cabots, who in turn, spoke only to God – were nowhere near the catastrophe. Instead the most affected were in densely packed immigrant tenements, mainly Italian, with some Irish. The immigrants were looked down on as mere trash and considered nothing more than nuisances (at best); they were mostly non-voters and politically voiceless. But this united them and over the next months more than 100 suits were filed. These were combined huge class action suit which took thousands of witnesses and six years to resolve legally.

The distilling company first blamed the destruction of the tank on Italian anarchists (of course, right?), but, as the case rolled on, much testimony as to shoddy construction methods and weak materials began to gather steam. The tank, built in a hurry while the first shipment of molasses was on order, was not ever tested with more than a few inches of water before it was filled with the first delivery. It began to leak almost immediately. Area folks used to gather up jars of the molasses from the puddles, and children hung around the base of the tank to indulge. The company responded by painting the tank a dark color so the leaks were not as conspicuous.

After the long and convoluted trial, in 1925 the company was found guilty and forced to pay out. The idea that big business would be held responsible was a new outlook; the fact that big business could act irresponsibly lead to government oversight and regulations of projects. The immigrants learned about political involvement – voting, citizenship, getting heard. These were earthmoving changes leading from the Molasses Flood that reached across the nation.

So, yeah, it sounds kind of crazy at first, a little silly, a bit weird. But we are still seeing the positive effects of the flood, although I bet there were a lot of folks who could never again stomach a molasses cookie.