Home > Statistic of the Week > Archive List > Detail

<< Prev 10/27/2013 Next >>

The Molasses Wave

Let me take you back to January 15, 1919. You are in a northend neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts.

At the Purity Distilling Company, a cylindrical molasses tank 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter collapsed. A wave of hot molasses rushed through the streets at an estimated 35 mph, killing 21 people and injuring 150 people.

The force of molasses wave was ample enough to damage the girders of the adjacent Elevated Railway, tip a railroad car off the tracks, and sweep multiple buildings off their foundations.

As author Stephen Puleo described it: "Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was... Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings men and women suffered likewise."

Given the above narrative, do some calculations:

  1. What was the original volume of molasses in the tank?
  2. The newspaper accounts claimed that the molasses' wave fluctuated originally between 8 and 40 feet high...does this make sense, given the original tank volume?
  3. The newspaper accounts also stated that several city blocks were flooded to a depth of 2 to 3 feet....does this make senser, given the original tank volume?
As a final note, the cleanup involved more than 300 people and took more than two weeks. It is estimated that it took over 87,000 man-hours (i.e. the number of hours in ten years for one person working continuously) to remove the molasses from the cobblestone streets, theaters, businesses, automobiles, and homes...plus the Boston Harbor was brown with molasses until that summer.