March 14, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

The World’s Most Catastrophic Floods—That Weren’t Water


The Great Floods

Some of the earliest stories ever told in human history are of great floods—but most of those stories tended to be about, you know, water. From butter to chocolate, these great floods were a little bit different.

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The Great Molasses Flood, January 1919, Boston, Massachusetts: Molasses

Molasses may be used to make brown sugar, rum, and many delicious foods—but it’s also used to make ethanol. That’s what the Purity Distilling Company in Boston did.

They made a lot of ethanol—which means they stored a lot of molasses.

Boston Molasses DisasterBPL, Wikimedia Commons

Purity Distilling Company

Purity Distilling had a 2.3 million gallon storage tank for molasses. The viscous liquid inside weighed 13,000 short tons—but there’s something the company didn’t think of.

Molasses gets expands when it’s hot—and the more molasses you have, the more it’ll expand. 

The molasses tank in the North End of BostonThe Bostonian Society, Wikimedia Commons

Filled To The Brim

On January 15, 1919, the temperature spiked 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the day after a fresh load of molasses had been delivered. 

Boston 1919 Molasses DisasterWired article, Wikimedia Commons

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Molasses Expands

The resulting expansion made the tank burst—and it turns out, flooding molasses is a lot more dangerous than water.

Boston Molasses DisasterUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

A Wave Of Tasty Destruction

The wave of molasses flooding out of the tank reached 25 feet high and moved at 35 miles per hour. It swept entire buildings away, and created a sweet-smelling shockwave that threw people off their feet.

Great Molasses Flood Of 1919Boston Globe, Getty Images

Final Fatality Count: 21

The Great Molasses Flood claimed 21 lives, injured 150, caused immeasurable damage—and as you can imagine, the cleanup was a nightmare.

Boston Molasses DisasterUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

Sticky Sticky

People tracked molasses everywhere, and the entire city was sticky for months. Some people say that even today, the area around the flood still smells sweet on hot summer days.

Boston Molasses Disaster placeLee Wooten, Flickr

The Great Dublin Whiskey Flood Of June 1875, Dublin, Ireland: Irish Whiskey

There’s something undeniably Irish about a whiskey flood, and that’s exactly what happened in Dublin in 1875.

Dublin Late 1800SNational Library of Ireland on The Commons, Wikimedia Commons

That’s A Lot Of Brown

Sometime during the night of June 18, 1875, a fire started in Laurence Malone’s storehouse on Ardee Street, which contained over 300,000 gallons of Irish whiskey

Barrels began to explode—and then the flood started.

Whiskey Fire DublinIllustrated London News, Wikimedia Commons

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A Flammable Flood

Thousands of gallons of flammable liquid poured out into the streets of Dublin, enough to demolish an entire row of houses.

Dublin Whiskey Fire 1875Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

Thank The Pigs

As the fire spread, squealing pigs alerted people very quickly, and the evacuation was surprisingly efficient. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any fatalities, however…

1875 Dublin whiskey fireUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

First Come, First Serve

As the river of whiskey flowed through the streets of Dublin, people grabbed anything they could—cups, jars, even their own hands—to snag a swig of the open bar.

John Huston FactsWikimedia Commons

Final Fatality Count: 13

In the end, no one succumbed to burns or smoke inhalation, but there were still 13 fatalities…from alcohol poisoning.

1875 Dublin whiskey fireUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

The Great Pepsi Flood Of April 2017, Lebedyan, Russia: Fruit And Vegetable Juices

The center of PepsiCo’s operations in Russia is in the city of Lebedyan, where they operate a massive warehouse. But on April 25, 2017, the warehouse’s roof collapsed.

LebedyanШалин, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Final Fatality Count: 0

Thankfully, there were only two injuries when the roof collapsed, and 0 fatalities. But the people of Lebedyan were treated to a sight they would never forget.

Lebedyan Juice CompanyLudvig14, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

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Juicy

The collapsing roof sent 7.4 million gallons of fruit and vegetable juices surging into the streets of Lebedayan. 

Shocked man drinking juiceKrakenimages.com, Shutterstock

A Treat For The Fish

The flood was so severe that local officials worried that it would damage the local aquatic ecosystem, but thankfully, it seems the area avoided serious environmental damage.

Don River In LebedyanШалин, CC BY-SA 3.0 , Wikimedia Commons

The Great London Beer Flood, October 1814, London, England: Porter

The City of London loves its porter. In the early 1800s, the Horse Shoe Brewery produced over 100,000 barrels of porter annually—and it was still only the sixth largest brewer in London.

But that’s still a lot of porter. Bet you can guess where this is going…

Horseshoe Brewery, LondonBrewers’ Journal, Wikimedia Commons

Safety Saves Lives

Remember kids: Always check your fermenting tanks regularly! In 1814, corroded hoops in a massive vat of fermenting porter failed, releasing 270,000 gallons of dark beer into the streets of London.

The manor house of Toten HallWilkinson, Wikimedia Commons

Final Fatality Count: 8

Horse Shoe happened to be in an extremely densely packed area known as the rookery, making the flood all the more disastrous. Though everyone in the brewery survived, eight people, four of them children, lost their lives.

"A Scene in St Giles's" - the St Giles rookery, c. 1850Pierdon, Wikimedia Commons

An Act Of God, Or Man?

Moments before the flood, an iron band had slipped off the enormous vessel, yet the staff at the brewery willfully ignored it.

Still, the courts declared the disaster an “act of God” and offered Horse Shoe a large bailout to save them from bankrucpy.

poured beerpogonici, Shutterstock

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The Great Brooklyn Chocolate Flood, May 1919, New York City, New York: Molten Chocolate And Butter

Chocolatier Rockwood & Company’s factory and headquarters took up nearly an entire city block in Brooklyn, where they churned out more chocolate than any American company other than Hershey.

Rockwood & Company chocolate factoryBrooklyn Daily Eagle, Wikimedia Commons

"So This Is My Life"

Around 1am on May 12, 1919, a night watchman noticed smoke coming from the shipping department. He tracked the smoke, and found a fire starting to spead.

Unfortunately for him—and luckily for the children of Brooklyn—he was too late.

The Great Brooklyn Chocolate Flood, May 1919Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Call The Fire Brigade

The watchman alerted the fire department and they arrived on the scene in minutes, but they struggled to get the blaze under control.

The Great Brooklyn Chocolate Flood, May 1919Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Where's Augustus Gloop?

Eventually, the fire spread to the factory’s storage area. As the firefighters doused the flames, the water washed a mixture of cocoa, butter, and molten chocolate out into the streets.

Rockwood and Company, Brooklyn, New YorkUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Gimme Gimme Gimme

As firefighters struggled to control the blaze, local children rushed to the streets to get a taste of what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle called an “ocean of fudge”.

Painting Of A Chocolate Factory DisasterDALL-E, Wikimedia Commons

Row, Row, Row, Your boat

There was so much of the thick, sweet mixtures that it’s said you could have floated a boat down two city blocks.

Painting of a chocolate factory disasterDALL-E, Wikimedia Commons

Final Fatality Count: 0

Thankfully, there were no fatalities in the Brooklyn Chocolate Flood, and the damage to property was relatively minimal. My kinda flood!

Rockwood & Company shipping department fireUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Was There A Little Green Globule?

Authorities in Brooklyn tried to determine the cause of fire, but after an investigation, the best bet anyone could come up with was “spontaneous combustion”, which actually does occasionally happen in such situations.

Painting Of A Chocolate Factory DisasterDALL-E, Wikimedia Commons

The Great Portuguese Wine Flood, September 2023, São Lourenço do Bairro, Portugal: Red Wine

The Destilaria Levira in Portugal has been in operation since 1923, and it remains one of the largest in the country. 

Destilaria LeviraAdamus.spirits, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Buy! Buy! Buy!

In 2023, the distillery took advantage of a European wine surplus and purchased an enormous amount of wine. Unfortunately, it was a recipe for disaster.

Wine cellarRoberto Cerruti, Shutterstock

We Sure This Wasn't Colorado?

On September 10, 2023, one of the storage tanks at the distillery collapsed. The rush of liquid toppled a second tank, and in the blink of an eye, 580,000 gallons of red flooded down into the village of São Lourenço do Bairro.

São Lourenço do BairroRodrigo Pereira, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Final Fatality Count: 0

The loss of the vino was obviously a financial hit to the distillery, but luckily, the damage caused by the flood was relatively minimal.

Definitely a bad day to hang your whites out on the line, though, that’s for sure.

Making wineTravel-Fr, Shutterstock

The Great Wisconsin Butter Flood, May 1991, Madison, Wisconsin: Butter, Cheese, And Meat Products

If there was going to be a butter flood anywhere in the world, I would have guessed it’d be in Wisconsin. And it started, like many non-water floods, with a fire.

Wisconsin State Capitol Aerial - 2021Lectrician2, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

I'm From The Government And I'm Here To Help

As the US government purchased huge amounts of cheese and butter, American farmers increased their prudocution by 30% in just a few years, rapidly leading to a butter surplus.

By 1990, 300 million pounds of dairy products were sitting in American warehouses.

Boxes with finished dairy productsHenadziPechan, Shutterstock

That's A Lot Of Butter...

On May 3, 1991, the Central Storage and Warehouse Company of Madison, Wisconsin, was storing upwards of 15 million pounds of butter—along with another 4 million pounds of sausage.

Then a fire broke out.

Warehouse manager in bubble jacket holding tablet in warehouseTiger Lily, Pexels

What's That Smell?

As the fire started spreading, neighbors reported a horrible stench from the facility. Firefighters struggled to control the blaze, and it eventually spread to where the butter was stored.

butter meltingWitR, Shutterstock

Hope You Brought Lots Of Biscuits

After the fire had already been raging for hours, the building where the butter was stored collapsed, causing an enormous wave of melted butter to spill out.

StorageUnknown Author, PxHere

Everyone Tuck Your Socks Into Your Pants!

For the rest of the eight-day effort to bring the fire under control, firefighters had to wade through pools of butter and cheese that reached as much as five feet deep.

melted butterDPRM, Shutterstock

Where The Sun Don't Shine

After a shift trying to stop the blaze, firefighter Steven Davis said he had “butter in places a guy shouldn’t have butter by the end of the night.

FirefightersDefense Visual Information Distribution Service, Picryl

Final Fatality Count: 0

The environmental and financial costs of the Wisconsin Butter Flood are hard to understate—butter spills have a similar effect to oil spills. But at least there were no fatalities.

Wisconsin lake12019, Needpix


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