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January 2019

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U.S. Census Bureau History: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

Boston Molasses Flood Newspaper

One day after the United States Industrial Alcohol storage tank ruptured in Boston's
North End neighborhood on January 15, 1919, the Boston Post reported that
a 2.3 million gallon wave of molasses destroyed everything in its path.

Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

On January 15, 1919, a steel tank holding molasses ruptured sending a 2.3 million gallon, 26 million pound wave of the dark, sticky syrup surging through the North End neighborhood streets of Boston, MA. As it made its way toward Boston Harbor, the 40-foot tall wave shattered homes and businesses, toppled telephone poles, snapped the supports of a nearby elevated railway, and knocked a firehouse from its foundation.

The United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA) Company built the 50-foot-tall storage tank in 1915 to serve its Purity Distilling Company subsidiary, which fermented molasses to produce industrial alcohol. At the time, World War I was raging across Europe and munitions industries had an unquenchable thirst for the industrial alcohol needed to produce cordite—a smokeless gunpowder used in ammunition and artillery shells. USIA hurried construction of the tank to take advantage of lucrative war contracts. Supervisors and inspecting officials overseeing the building and management of the tank lacked the engineering expertise to spot deficiencies in the tank's materials and construction. USIA was in such a hurry that the first shipment of molasses from Cuba arrived in Boston before the tank could be tested for leaks. Over the next 4 years, residents of Boston's North End neighborhood grew accustomed to hearing the 50-foot tall storage tank groan under the pressure of its contents. Rivets and seams leaked so profusely that families regularly collected molasses dripping down the tank walls for home use. In response, USIA ordered the tank painted brown to help camouflage its leaking joints.

On January 12–13, 1919, a 600,000 gallon delivery of molasses pumped from the S.S. Milerro in Boston Harbor nearly filled the USIA storage tank to capacity. In the days that followed, USIA planned to transfer the molasses to railroad tank cars for transport to its distillery in Cambridge, MA. However, before that transfer took place, the pressure proved too great for the steel tank's walls. On January 15, at 12:40 p.m., residents heard rumbling, followed by the sound of metal ripping as the tank's steel walls tore apart. Its contents surged into the neighborhood, engulfing everything in its path, suffocating onlookers, and washing terrified victims into the harbor. Rescuers spent days sifting through the wreckage as they searched for the injured and dead, and did not recover the last victim from the harbor until May 12. Clean-up crews spent an estimated 87,000 worker hours cleaning streets, buildings, trains, and everything else the sticky syrup touched as horses, pedestrians, and curiosity seekers tracked the brown mess throughout the city.

In the aftermath of the tank's failure, the victims' families filed a class-action lawsuit against USIA. USIA deflected responsibility, claiming the rupture had been the result of a terrorist act by anarchists. Following 6 years of litigation, Hugh Ogden, an auditor appointed to oversee the lawsuit by the Massachusetts Superior Court, found that the tank's construction had been deficient. He ruled in the defendants' favor and ordered USIA to pay the victims of the molasses flood $1 million—equivalent to about $14 million in 2018. Soon after, Boston (and most cities, states, and the federal government) adopted stringent regulations for the permitting, inspection, and maintenance of large storage tanks.

Years after the flood, North End residents claimed they could still smell molasses in the neighborhood on warm days. Today, the site of the molasses storage tank is home to a park and baseball field named for Massachusetts state senator Joseph A. Langone, Jr. and his wife Clementina, both of whom were advocates of Boston's North End. Nearby, a small plaque commemorates the Boston Molasses Flood and the 21 people who died.

You can learn more about the 1919 Boston Molasses Flood and its victims using census data and records. For example:

  • Because of the high cost of white table sugar prior to World War I, molasses was the most popular sweetener in the United States. In 1875, the per capita consumption of cane and beet sugar was 40.3 pounds. It rose to 65.2 pounds in 1900, and 81 pounds by the start of World War I in 1914. As a result of wartime rationing, consumption fell to 74.6 pounds in 1918. Sugar consumption rose to 109.6 pounds in 1930. In 2009, the average American consumed 63.5 pounds of cane and beet sugar and 115.8 pounds of corn sweeteners (including high fructose corn syrup, glucose, and dextrose).
  • Twenty-one people died from injuries related to the Boston Molasses Flood. Victims included: 65-year-old Bridget Cloughtery, who died when her house collapsed under the wave of molasses flooding her North End home. Her children Stephen, Martin, and Theresa, and several lodgers were injured in the flood. Stephen died months later at the Boston State Asylum for the Insane as a result of his injuries; firefighter George Layhe drowned in molasses after being trapped in debris beneath his shattered fireboat station; James McMullen, a railway foreman, died days after the flood from internal injuries and infection; 69-year-old blacksmith John Seiberlich died from a fractured skull and other injuries after being crushed by debris while working near the ruptured storage tank; Patrick Breen, a 44-year-old laborer, died from pneumonia and internal injuries after being swept into Boston Harbor; and William Brogan, a 61-year-old teamster, did not have a chance to escape while working at the City of Boston's North End Paving Yard adjacent to the doomed USIA storage tank.
  • Alcohol profits faced an uncertain future at the end of the First World War thanks to the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on January 16, 1919, and enforcement of the prohibition against the production, transport, and sale of intoxicating liquors by the Volstead Act, beginning on January 17, 1920. American manufacturers produced a pre-Prohibition high of 286,100,000 barrels of beer in 1917. That total fell to 2,766,000 barrels in 1932. Because the production and sale of intoxicating spirits for medical and religious purposes were excluded from Prohibition, production of distilled spirits (including industrial alcohol) rose from 100,800,000 taxed gallons in 1919 to 203,800,000 taxed gallons in 1926. When the Twenty-First Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933, U.S. manufacturers produced 123,405,00 taxed gallons of distilled spirits.
  • Companies that manufacture the heavy-gauge metal storage tanks like those used to store molasses, water, alcohol, and other liquids (NAICS 332420) employed 35,449 people at 703 establishments in the United States in 2012. These establishments employed 1,847 in 2012. Total combined value of all shipments for these establishments was approximately $9.35 billion.
  • The molasses stored in the ruptured Boston storage tank was destined to be fermented into industrial alcohol, also known as ethyl alcohol, or "ethanol." Today, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reports that the United States leads the world in the production of fuel ethanol, refining 993,000 barrels daily in 2015. Brazil was the second largest ethanol producer, refining 479,000 barrels each day.
  • Ethanol can be produced from a variety of feedstocks including sugar, molasses, sorghum, sweet potatoes, switch grass, wheat, and cotton. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, ethanol is most commonly made from corn in the United States. In 2016, American farmers produced 14.54 billion bushels of corn and refineries used nearly 6 billion bushels of that harvest for ethanol production. Located in the nation's "corn belt" region, Iowa refiners produced 4 billion gallons of ethanol from the state's abundant crop in 2017, followed by Nebraska and Illinois which produced approximately 2 billion gallons each. Total U.S. ethanol production was nearly 16 billion gallons annually in 2017.
  • Today, the nation's largest single potable water tank is located in Austin, TX. The 260 foot diameter, 120 foot tall Martin Hill Reservoir Water Tank holds 34 million gallons of water. The largest multiple storage tank facilities in the United States serve the petroleum industry. Tank "farms" in Cushing, OK; Galliano, LA; Houston, TX; Nederland, TX; and St. James, LA; hold a combined total of approximately 250 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum products.

Aftermath of the Boston Molasses Flood

Eyewitnesses reported hearing a series of large bangs as the United States Industrial Alcohol molasses storage tank ruptured on January 15, 1919. The
release of 2.3 million gallons of molasses engulfed everything in its path as the wave of sticky syrup crushed homes and businesses and swept some
victims into the Boston Harbor.
For years after the disaster, residents claimed that on warm days, they could still smell the sweet aroma of molasses in the air.

Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

Statistical Sampling

Twenty years ago, on January 25, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the use of statistical sampling to produce the 2000 Census population counts used to apportion the U.S. House of Representatives.

In Department of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representatives, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that a 200-year precedent and Title 13, U.S. Code required the Census Bureau to base its apportionment counts on the actual, physical enumeration of every household in the nation.

Statistical sampling cannot be used to apportion the House of Representatives, but it can be used in other surveys—like the American Community Survey—to provide estimates of our nation's demographic and economic characteristics.

British Soldiers fire artillery rounds during World War I
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Industrial alcohol made from sugar cane and beets was a key component in the manufacture of gunpowder used during World War I, and Louisiana played a key role supplying the needed feedstocks.

Between April 1917 and March 1920, the state refined more than 71 million gallons of molasses and 1.3 billion pounds of cane sugar.

Molasses from sugar cane and sugar beets is still produced and refined in the United States for industrial alcohol, food products, and chemicals.

The 2012 Economic Census reported that 31 establishments in the United States engaged in Beet Sugar Manufacturing and 47 establishments engaged in Cane Sugar Manufacturing.

These establishments employed 13,050 in 2012. Total combined value of all shipments for these establishments was approximately $10.6 billion.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.

Boston, MA Postcard
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Boston, MA

Boston, MA, had a population of 18,320 at the first census in 1790. Its population doubled by 1820, and thanks to Irish and Italian immigration, it reached 250,526 in 1870 and 560,892 by 1900.

One year after the 1919 Boston Molasses Flood, the city was the seventh largest in the United States with a population of 748,060.

Following the 2010 Census, Boston was the nation's 21st largest city with a population of 617,594. Today, "Beantown" is home to 685,094.

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: December 08, 2021