We usually think of floods as natural disasters—but not all of them, in fact, are. Some floods are disasters of another sort—and as these food floods throughout history demonstrate, the idea of a 15-foot wave bearing down upon you is all the more terrifying when it’s a wave not of water, but of molasses.
Indeed, there have been a surprising number of floods, both past and present, which aren’t the result of hurricanes or superstorms; rather, they’re industrial accidents. Sometimes, they’re a result of ignorance or negligence and could have been avoided under the right circumstances, while other times, they’re what might be classified as freak accidents or acts of god—that is, they’re incidents no one could have seen coming, no matter how knowledgeable or diligent they may have been.
The good news is that, although earlier floods involving foodstuffs and beverages caused a huge degree of damage and loss of life, later floods were less disastrous. (Apparently, we humans really do learn from our mistakes sometimes.) These days, food floods are more likely to go viral based on the absurdity of the situation rather than any harm that may have come about as a result of the incident.
Even so, these catastrophes are no laughing matter. Just, y’know… think about that the next time you pour yourself a cold one.
The Great Molasses Flood
Boston’s North End was once home to a giant tank of molasses. The Purity Distilling Company had built the tank in 1915, which held the molasses they used to produce ethanol at the time. (Yes, molasses can be used to make alcohol; that’s what rum is, after all—fermented and distilled molasses.) But the tank isn’t there anymore; it hasn’t been since 1919. That year, the tank burst, sending 2.3 million gallons of molasses down Commercial Street in a 15-foot wave traveling at 35 miles per hour.
Buildings were destroyed. The elevated railway was crushed. 150 people were injured. 21 died.
And the area was covered—covered—with thick, sticky, brown sludge for six months while cleanup crews worked to return the area to a semblance of its former appearance.
The Purity Distilling Company had been owned by the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Co. since 1917, and it was the parent company that took the fall. Although U.S. Industrial Alcohol Co. insisted initially that anarchists had bombed the tank, it quickly became clear that the issues were with the tank itself. Even so, the extent to which the tank was faulty wasn’t determined until much later on: Structural and metallurgical engineer Ronald Mayville has spent a considerable amount of time studying the flood and its causes; he published the results of his research in Civil and Structural Engineer Magazine in 2014—and one of the biggest oversights at the time was the material out of which the tanks were constructed in the first place.
“No one disputed they underdesigned the tank walls,” Mayville told the Boston Globe; indeed, even in the immediate aftermath of the flood, the tank walls were found to be too thin, while issues with the rivet design had put stress in all the wrong places. But in the early 20th century, it wasn’t yet known that having too little manganese mixed with the steel made the material brittle in cooler temperatures and therefore more susceptible to cracking. “The steel conformed to the standards of the time,” Mayville told the Globe, “but now it’s known you need to have a higher ratio.”
A class-action lawsuit—one of the first launched in the state of Massachusetts—was brought against the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Co., and after three years of hearings, the company was found liable for the disaster. They paid out $628,000 in damages—equivalent to more than $9 million in 2019.
The Russian Fruit Juice Flood
Fruit juice might not be quite as thick as molasses, but it’s just as sticky—and on April 25, 2017, almost 7.4 million gallons of the stuff flooded the streets of the Russian town of Lebedyan after the roof of a juice factory collapsed.
PepsiCo has had a presence in Russia since 1972, mostly in a series of barter agreements (for example, cola for vodka). The collapse of the USSR in 1991 threw a wrench in the works; as the Los Angeles Times later reported, though, they were able to pull off a pretty impressive save involving a lot of complicated re-negotiations. So, ultimately, PepsiCo was able to keep its Russian deals afloat—and in 2008, the company acquired Lebedyansky, a multinational beverage manufacturing company based in Lebedyan, which just so happens to be the largest fruit juice manufacturer in Eastern Europe.
It was the roof of the Lebedyansky factory that collapsed, releasing a flash flood of fruit and vegetable juices both onto the streets and into the Don River, upon the banks of which Lebedyen sits. Videos filmed by residents and uploaded to the Internet on platforms like YouTube showed cars plowing through deep rivers of pinkish fluid as they dealt with the aftermath of the flood. The flood was a mix of pineapple, apricot, tangerine, grape, mango, pomegranate, apple, cherry, orange, grapefruit, and tomato juices, according to news outlet teleSur.
Thankfully, though, this flood was substantially less deadly than either the beer flood of 1814 or the molasses flood of 1919. Only two injuries resulted from the incident, and no deaths were reported. Furthermore, analysis of water samples taken from the Don River following the flood showed that no environmental damage had been caused by the torrent of juice.
Messy? Yes. Dangerous? Ultimately, not so much.
The London Beer Flood
In 1814, the London brewery known as the Horse Shoe Brewery had existed at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street for half a century. Established in 1764, it was named in honor of an earlier pub called the Horseshoe, which itself had been named for the unique shape of its dining room.
Several owners operated the Horse Shoe Brewery over the decades, but by 1809, it had come under the command of Henry Meux, formerly of the well-known porter brewer Meux Reid. When Meux moved from his home at the Griffin Brewery to strike out on his own at the Horse Shoe, he brewed under the name Henry Meux & Co.—and he did it well: In just two years, Meux & Co. had become London’s sixth largest brewer of porter.
But on Oct. 17, 1814, something terrible happened. At 4:30 p.m. that day, a storehouse clerk, George Crick, noticed during an inspection that one of the 700-pound iron hoops that supported a 22-foot vat holding 3,555 barrels—or, more than a million pints—of porter had fallen off. This wasn’t an unheard-of occurrence; according to Crick, who spoke at the inquest later, it happened several times a year. He wrote a note about the issue and left it for another employee to schedule the maintenance appointment to fix it.
However, it turned out that the repair couldn’t wait: At 5:30 p.m. that same day, the vat burst, which caused a chain reaction resulting in the rapid release of thousands of barrels of beer. The beer flood destroyed the brewery’s rear wall and careened down New Street in the form of a wave 15 feet high, destroying virtually everything in its path as it went. Eight people died, four of whom were children between the ages of 3 and 14.
An inquest later determined the flood to have been an act of god, meaning that Meux & Co. was not required to pay compensation to the victims. Somewhat astonishingly, the company was actually able to recover from the event. Although it cost them £23,000 in lost product, building reconstruction, and vat replacement, they began brewing again not too long afterwards and continued operating for another 100-plus years.
The brewery ceased operating out of its original location in 1921—but, curiously, the story doesn’t quite end there. The Dominion Theatre was constructed on the site of the former brewery in 1928, with its first performance playing in October of 1929. The theatre is still there today; in fact, it’s where the long-running jukebox musical based on the music of Queen, We Will Rock You, played from 2002 to 2014. And, in 2012—during We Will Rock You’s run—an audience member snapped a chilling photo he claimed showed the ghostly image of a young girl in the background. He claimed the girl was a ghost—perhaps the ghost of one of the girls killed in the beer flood two centuries earlier.
The German Chocolate Flood
German chocolatier DreiMeister may not be as old as some European chocolate-makers, but it does have a venerable history: After first founding Cafè Schröder in the 1950s in the town of Werl, Hans Schröder established DreiMeister Spezialitäten in 1973. The company, which specializes in truffles and other chocolate treats made according to traditional recipes, was handed over to the next Schröder in line, Hans-Wilhelm, in 1988; and, between then and 2016, Hans-Wilhelm built the company up into one of Germany’s leading chocolate manufacturers.
DreiMeister’s production facility is still located near Werl; it’s in the suburb of Westönnen. And, somewhat hilariously, that production facility was responsible for a delicious disaster that tied up a nearby road for a few hours on Dec. 10, 2018.
At about 8 p.m. that night, a tank at the factory overflowed (no explosions this time, thankfully!)—and when that happened, a literal river of chocolate swept out of the factory and onto the road nearest to it, Westrasse. But, since it was December, the chocolate didn’t stay liquid for long; it hardened, covering the road with what the Werl fire department later called “a ten-square-meter choco-pancake.”
Or, put another way: It turned the road into a giant chocolate bar.
Happily, things were quickly cleaned up; it only took the fire department about two hours and dozens of shovels, blowtorches, and hot water to clear the “choco-pancake” from the road. They ensured that every last crevasse was clear before opening Westrasse back up to traffic; as fire chief Karsten Korte told the German news outlet Soester Anzeiger at the time, the fat content of the chocolate meant that accidents due to slippage could present a real risk. In the end, no one was harmed—although, sadly, the chocolate in question all had to be thrown out.
The California Red Wine Flood
2020 has felt so apocalyptic that it’s almost understandable that this incident from late January flew somewhat under the radar. Of course, one could also argue that tens of thousands of gallons of red wine flowing into a river following a “mechanical failure” at a California winery is… the kind of thing we should be paying attention to regardless.
That’s exactly what happened at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, on Jan. 22, 2020. That day, a tank at the winery with a capacity of 97,000 gallons sprang a leak, sending anywhere from 46,000 to 96,000 gallons of cabernet sauvignon into the nearby Russian River. At the time, the winery wasn’t sure exactly what happened; communications director Christopher O’Gorman told ABC News that the winery was “investigating what appears to be a mechanical failure” and taking action to clean up the mess, find out what happened, and prevent such an incident from recurring. By Friday, O’Gorman told the Washington Post, “at least 50 percent of the wine [had] been diverted from the waterways.”
Fortunately, the outcome was similar to the fruit juice flood and the chocolate river incident: No one was hurt during this boozy flood; there was, however, some concern that the wine might disrupt the Russian River’s ecosystem. Happily, though, the damage seems to have been minimal; indeed, as Don McEnhill, the executive director of the nonprofit organization Russian River Keeper, told ABC News, “I’d say this is a case of dodging the bullet.” Continued McEnhill, “We’re lucky in that it’s winter, the river is high, there’s a fair amount of dilution. We haven’t had any reports of fish kills, [although] certainly the biochemical oxygen demand and the acidity of the wine is going to kill some smaller insect type things that are fish food. This could have been a lot worse.”
To be fair, things can always be a lot worse—but at least we’re not currently trying to dig ourselves out of any errant foodstuffs. Stay safe out there!