How Boston's 1919 molasses flood turned so deadly

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The Molasses Flood of 1919 wreaked havoc on Boston's North End neighborhood, killing 21 people. A new experiment suggests wintery temperatures were partly to blame for the sticky flood's deadliness.

In January of 1919, a tank containing two million gallons of molasses burst open, unleashing a sticky flood onto Boston's North End. The 25-foot high wave of goo oozed over the streets at 35 miles per hour, crushing buildings in its wake and killing 21 people.

A number of factors are thought to have contributed to the disaster. The steel of the take, where the Purity Distilling Company was fermenting molasses into alcohol, was only half as thick as it should have been. And that January's relatively balmy, 40-degree Fahrenheit weather may have increased pressure as carbon dioxide built up inside. Now, research by Harvard fluid dynamicists suggests cold temperatures also added to the deadly mix.

The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919
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The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

Coverage from The Boston Post after the disaster.

(Photo via The Boston Post/Public Domain)

BOSTON - JANUARY 19: Page One of the January 16, 1919 Boston Daily Globe. Headline: Molasses Tank Explosion Injures 50 And Kills 11. (The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The molasses tank prior to bursting. 

(Photo via The Bostonian Society/Public Domain)

The ruins of tanks containing 2 1/2 million gallons of molasses lie in a heap after an eruption that hurled trucks against buildings and crumpled houses in the North End of Boston, Mass., Jan. 15, 1919. The disaster took 21 lives and injured 40. The damage ran into the millions. An investigation started the following day, ended six years later. (AP Photo)
Firefighters and others stand in a pool of molasses after the explosion of a molasses storage tank owned by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company in Boston, Ma., Jan. 15, 1919. About 2.2 million gallons of molasses flooded the area, killing 21 people, injuring 150, trapping a dozen horses, and destroying buildings, homes and part of the elevated train. (AP Photo)
(Original Caption) Elevated train structure is a twisted mass of metal on Atlantic Ave. after the 'Great Molasses Flood of 1919'. A huge tank containing more than 2-million gallons of the sticky liquid collapsed sending an avalanche of death. 21 persons were killed in the flood and 40 more injured.

Before the rupture, the molasses inside the tank was likely 5 degrees Celsius warmer than the surrounding air, thanks to a fresh shipment of syrup from the Caribbean. The higher temperature may have helped the molasses spread over the Boston waterfront at such an alarming pace. But once exposed to the nearly freezing winter temperatures outside, the goo cooled and became much thicker and stickier. The higher viscosity may have trapped people caught in the flow, and likely hampered rescue and cleanup efforts, according to the researchers.

Researchers gained new insight into the disaster by studying historical accounts of the accident, century-old maps, and weather data. The researchers also built their own mini molasses flood inside a walk-in refrigerator. Using corn syrup as a stand-in for molasses at this smaller scale, they studied the goop's flow properties at wintery temperatures.

The main purpose of the research, the Harvard scientists admit, is to raise interest in fluid dynamics. Dare we say a career in fluid dynamics might be pretty sweet?

Related: Look back at some of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history:

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[Newswise via New York Times]

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