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Boston Disasters

A guide to resources about natural disasters and catastrophic accidents at the BPL and beyond.

Introduction

Boston has been the location of numerous disasters including blizzards, hurricanes, industrial accidents, train crashes, and plane crashes that have taken many lives and destroyed or severely damaged several buildings. This guide will give a brief overview of several of these disasters and available resources for further research.

Hurricane of 1938


Hurricane hits, Dorchester

Type of Storm: Hurricane, Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale
Killed: 564 (99 in Massachusetts)
Injured: around 1,700
Property damaged/destroyed: 8,900 homes destroyed and over 15,000 damaged; 2,605 boats destroyed and 3,369 damaged.
Cost of Damages: estimated $306 million (over $5 billion today)

The Great New England Hurricane made landfall on Long Island before moving up the East Coast through New England and into Quebec before finally dissipating. It was the fastest moving hurricane in recorded history, traveling around 600 miles in 12 hours. Due the speed of the storm it has also been referred to as “The Long Island Express.”

Only the third hurricane to hit New England and the first since 1869, it is the most destructive and deadly storm in the region’s recent history. The storm produced sustained winds of up to 121 mph with gusts up to 125 mph and caused severe flooding all along the coast. Storm surges in Rhode Island wiped out entire communities along the coast. New England’s fishing industry was hit particularly hard by the storm, with entire fleets being wiped out at once. In Massachusetts, heavy rains caused rivers to flood and washed away bridges inland while the storm surge left Falmouth and New Bedford under several feet of water. The damage done to many of the trees during the storm was supposedly visible well into the 1950s.

Blizzard of 1978


Southern view of cars stranded on Route 128 South during the Blizzard of 1978.

Type of Storm: Extra-tropical cyclone, nor’easter
Killed: 99 (73 in Massachusetts)
Injured: around 4,500 (over 4,300 in Massachusetts)
Property damaged/destroyed: Hundreds of homes and boats destroyed, seawalls broken, and beaches eroded.
Cost of Damages: around $530 million ($500 million in Massachusetts), equivalent to over $2 billion today.

The Northeastern United States Blizzard of 1978, often referred to more simply as the Blizzard of ’78, dumped a record 27.1 inches of snow on Boston with hurricane-force winds over the course of two days before the storm finally broke up. The severity of the storm was largely unknown beforehand which led many residents to be caught unaware once it hit. Among those that were stranded by the storm were several hundred fans attending the first round games of the Beanpot Hockey Tournament at the Boston Garden. After failing to heed the warning to leave they were trapped in the Garden for several days along with Garden employees, taking refuge in skyboxes and locker rooms.

Among the most enduring images of the aftermath of the storm are the thousands of cars and trucks left abandoned on the highways of eastern Massachusetts. On I-95, over a dozen people died in their vehicles due to snow blocking exhaust pipes. A traffic ban for eastern Massachusetts was in place for the rest of the week and the sight of pedestrians on skis and snowshoes became a common one. President Jimmy Carter declared portions of Rhode Island and coastal Massachusetts federal disaster areas, and the National Guard was sent in to assist with the massive clean-up effort. The days that followed the storm have since passed into legend as "the week the state stood still."

Other Major Storms

February 27-March 7, 1717

Type of Storm: Unknown, several snowstorms over a nine-day period.
Killed: Unknown
Injured: Unknown
Property damaged/destroyed: Much of the local livestock starved or froze to death.
Cost of Damages: Unknown

A series of snowstorms that for nearly a century afterward was referred to as “The Great Snow” blanketed New England with about five feet of snow, creating drifts so high that some residents could only exit their houses by climbing out of upper-story windows.  Smaller houses were often buried completely and could only be located by the smoke coming from their chimneys. The Great Snow came on the heels of an already snowy winter, with several feet having already fallen on the region from storms in December and January. Some residents were forced to start burning their furniture to stave off the cold and were snowbound for several days until their houses were located and dug out by their neighbors.

New England Historical Society: Remembering the Great Snow of 1717 in New England
The New Yorker: An Horrid Snow
Lane Memorial Library: The Great Blizzard of 1717
Stories from Ipswich: A romantic tale from the Great Snow, Feb. 12-24, 1717

October 9-11, 1804

Type of Storm: Tropical cyclone
Killed: At least 17, possibly more
Injured: Unknown
Property damaged/destroyed: Widespread repairable damage to buildings, numerous ships destroyed, many trees and crops destroyed, a significant amount of livestock (i.e. cattle & chickens) killed.
Cost of Damages: $100,000 (approximately $2 million today.)

The first known tropical cyclone in history to produce snow wrought havoc on the economy of New England despite a relatively low death toll. Of the deaths that are known, most occurred on ships that were seriously damaged or destroyed by the storm. So many trees were destroyed by the high winds and wet snow that it took years for the local lumber industry to recover. Farmers were also hit hard by the storm, as the sudden onset of cold wet weather killed a large percentage of their crops. The hardest hit industry though was the shipping industry. Numerous anchored ships were wrecked, either by being driven ashore, or knocking against the wharves and/or other ships. Among the structures damaged by the storm was the Old North Church, whose original steeple was destroyed.

New England Historical Society: The Great Snow Hurricane of 1804
Stories from Ipswich: The Great Snow Hurricane of October, 1804
Mass Moments: "Snow Hurricane" Hits Massachusetts


Old North Church steeple knocked off by Hurricane Carol

August 31, 1954 (Carol)
September 11, 1954 (Edna)

Types of Storms: Tropical cyclones, Category 3 hurricanes on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.
Killed: About 90 combined, around 68 with Carol and around 20 with Edna.
Injured: Over 1,000 combined
Property damaged/destroyed: Carol- 4,000 homes, 3,500 cars, and over 3,000 boats. Edna- numerous boats damaged and trees destroyed.
Cost of Damages: $500 million combined (around $4.5 billion today,) $460 million with Carol and $40 million with Edna.

Occasionally referred to as “twin sisters” or “the twins,” Hurricanes Carol and Edna made landfall within 12 days of each other, wreaking havoc on New England. Carol was one of the most destructive storms to hit the region since the Hurricane of 1938 and Edna’s heavy rains so soon afterward led to severe flooding inland. The agriculture industry in the region took a huge hit when the high winds of Carol destroyed 40 percent of the apple, corn, peach, and tomato crops. Carol was in fact so destructive and deadly that the name was the first Atlantic hurricane name to be retired by the National Hurricane Center. Both storms caused severe flooding, Carol on the coast and Edna in more urban areas, where numerous rivers and streams overflowed their banks washing out streets and submerging whole neighborhoods.

And for the second time, the steeple of the Old North Church was felled by a major storm when Carol hit Boston.

Digital Commonwealth: Photos of aftermath of Hurricane Carol held by the BPL
Cape Cod Times: Sixty years ago: Hurricanes Carol and Edna hit the Cape
Monthly Weather Review, December 1954: Hurricanes of 1954 (link opens pdf file)
HurricaneScience.org: 1954- Hurricane Carol
New England Historical Society: Hurricane Carol, So Deadly, Her Name Was Retired
Vineyard Gazette: In the Eye of the Hurricane: Edna on the Heels of Carol

Molasses Flood


Twisted elevated structure on Atlantic Ave., damaged in Molasses Disaster

January 15, 1919

One of the oddest disasters to hit Boston began at shortly after noon on an unusually warm day in January when a tank containing 2.3 million gallons of molasses burst. The ruptured tank sent a wave of molasses peaking at 25 feet in height through the outer reaches of the North End, ultimately killing two young children and nineteen adults. A train carrying dozens of passengers very narrowly missed toppling off the elevated track supports. Among the several buildings knocked off their foundations was the local firehouse, killing one firefighter and injuring several others.

Rescuers had an incredibly difficult time reaching the victims as the sticky mess left behind became more and more difficult to wade through as it hardened. Victims of the flood were difficult to identify, with the molasses coating their bodies and obscuring their faces and clothes. Rescuers gave up searching for survivors after four days as the mess became impossible to navigate.

The clean-up effort lasted for several weeks and required dozens of people to carry out. After several failed attempts to clean the sticky mess, salt water was pumped in from the nearby harbor to finally clear the remaining molasses from the streets. A popular urban legend holds that one can still smell molasses in the area on warm days.

Location: 529 Commercial Street, North End (Google Map)
Type of incident: Industrial accident. A large tank in the North End containing millions of gallons of molasses burst, sending a large wave through the neighborhood.
Killed: 21
Injured: 150
Property damaged/destroyed: Dozens of buildings damaged or destroyed, elevated train supports damaged, and several horses were killed.
Cost of Damages: Over $7 million, nearly $100 million today.
Convictions/lawsuits: No convictions. A class-action suit brought against the owner of the tank (United States Industrial Alcohol Company) by the survivors and family members of the deceased resulted in settlements totaling $1,000,000 (about $100 million today.) USIA had claimed from the beginning that anarchists had intentionally blown up the tank, because of it's military value: the molasses was meant to be distilled into industrial alcohol for the use of the U.S. Armed Forces fighting in World War I. The court was not swayed by this explanation despite the popularity of the story.
Cause: Officially undetermined. The most popular theory is that high internal pressure caused by fermentation of the molasses and the unseasonably warm temperatures that week led to a fatigue crack that grew to the point of criticality in the shoddily constructed and poorly maintained tank. The tank had previously sprung several leaks, which were hidden from the public by painting it a brownish-red color.
Result: Building regulations were revised and strengthened all over the country.

Train and Plane Crashes


Bussey Bridge, sometime prior to collapse

March 14, 1887

Hundreds of commuters on a nine-car train would fall victim to poor bridge construction and maintenance during the Monday morning rush hour, when the Bussey Bridge collapsed without warning just as the second car crossed over it. The rest of the cars crashed to the street with the bridge. The impact was so violent that the victims were left either badly mangled or dismembered, and many of the survivors had horrific injuries.

The investigation into the collapse found that the bridge was not strong enough to handle the amount of traffic it was meant to serve. It was also found that the designer of the bridge, Edmund Hewins, represented what turned out to be a fictitious company and had employed poor design and workmanship in the construction of the bridge. The Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners admonished local authorities for their failure to properly check into Hewins’ background and thoroughly vet his design.

Location: Railroad bridge crossing South Street near Forest Hills (Google Map)
Type of Incident: Bridge collapse
Killed: 23
Injured: Over 100
Property damaged/destroyed: Bridge destroyed, several train cars severely damaged.
Cause: Poor bridge design, maintenance, and inspection.
Result: Massachusetts added requirement that railroad bridges were to be inspected by a qualified engineer every two years.

HUB History, Episode 218: Disaster at Bussey Bridge (podcast)
Jamaica Plain Historical Society: Bussey Bridge Train Disaster
Roslindale Historical Society: Photos of Roslindale- Bussey Bridge Disaster of 1887
Special Report by the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners to the Legislature in Relation to the Disaster on Monday, March 14, 1887 (also available in hard copy at the BPL)

November 7, 1916

The deadliest public transportation disaster in Boston history occurred during the evening rush hour on Election Day in 1916. A trolley car filled to capacity ran through the gates at the Summer Street Bridge and plunged in the cold channel below, causing dozens of passengers trapped in the car to drown. First responders were largely unsuccessful in their attempts to rescue them. Those that were able to make it out of the car on their own, including the motorman and the conductor, were pulled from the water by passing pedestrians and tugboats.

It would remain the deadliest accident in Boston history until the Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942.

Location: Drawbridge over Fort Point Channel ( Google Map)
Type of Incident: Trolley car ran off of open drawbridge into channel.
Killed: 46
Property damaged: Closed gates between tracks and bridge smashed by trolley car.
Cause: Motorman Gerald Walsh failed to heed a stop sign, and did not notice that the bridge was open until it was too late to stop the car. The Public Service Commission conceded that the stop signs that were supposed to be placed near drawbridges were often hard to see, too close to the bridges, or absent entirely. Walsh had also never run the route before that day. He also claimed not to have seen the red lantern that was supposed to be hung by the bridge tenders as a warning that the bridge was open. While the bridge tenders claimed that they did hang it, the fact that the lantern was completely intact after the accident and not broken like the gates led some to believe that it was hung after the fact.
Result: Walsh was indicted for manslaughter and acquitted. He never ran a streetcar again. The car was pulled from the channel the next day and was eventually repaired and put back into service, though it was quickly converted to a work car when no operator was willing to run it. It was ultimately scrapped.

Countway Library of Medicine: Photograph of the aftermath of the Summer Street Bridge disaster
Celebrate Boston: Summer Street Bridge Disaster
BostonFireHistory.org: Contemporary News Account (link opens pdf)
Boston Globe 100th anniversary coverage: Article, Images, List of Victims

October 4, 1960

The worst bird strike in history occurred shortly after Eastern Air Lines Flight 375, bound for Philadelphia, took off from Logan at 5:40pm. The plane crashed into the water almost in a vertical position and broke apart on impact. Only ten of the seventy seven people on board survived. Those that did survive, two crew members and eight passengers, had been thrown from the plane when it broke apart and were quickly rescued by people on nearby boats.

The wreckage rapidly sank to the bottom of the bay, with dozens of people trapped inside who could not free themselves and eventually drowned.  Many people that were on the shore in nearby Winthrop swam to the wreckage or formed human chains in an ultimately fruitless attempt to rescue the crash victims. The entire incident from take-off to the crash took place in less than a minute.

During the investigation into the crash about 75 bird carcasses were found on the runway at the approximate location of the strike. Several simulations of the scenario leading to the crash were run, using experienced pilots at the controls. None of them were able to prevent the crash.

Location: Logan International Airport, Winthrop Bay (Google Map)
Type of Incident: A Lockheed L-188 Electra aircraft crashed into Winthrop Bay shortly after taking off from runway 9 at Logan.
Killed: 67
Injured: 10
Property destroyed: Plane fuselage broke in half, front section broke into smaller pieces.
Cause: A flock of starlings flew into the plane, disabling three out of four engines and possibly obscuring the pilots' view through the windscreen. The fuselage broke into two pieces upon crashing. A later lawsuit from the family of one of the deceased passengers also uncovered that an improperly maintained co-pilot's seat may have led to a pilot error, causing the plane to stall.
Result: It was determined that the type of engines the plane had been outfitted with were particularly vulnerable to serious damage from bird strikes, and that they should be re-designed to help prevent such damage in the future. It was also determined that some way of reducing the bird population near airports should be found. Airports all over the country subsequently implemented programs to prevent birds from nesting on airport grounds.

Federal Aviation Administration: Eastern Airlines, Inc. Flight 375, Lockheed Electra L-188, N5533
Boston Magazine: The Worst Bird Strike in U.S. History
US Air Force Air Mobility Command: America's Worst Bird Strike
Boeing: Strategies for Prevention of Bird-Strike Events
 


From the 31 July 1973 final edition of the Boston Globe

July 31, 1973

The worst plane crash in Boston’s history ultimately resulted in the deaths of all 89 people on board. Flight 723 went from Burlington, Vermont to Logan after an unscheduled stop in Manchester, New Hampshire to pick up thirty-three passengers from an earlier canceled flight. Thick fog had severely reduced visibility in the area and the accident went largely unseen. By the time first responders arrived, the plane was engulfed in flames and there was little hope of being able to rescue anyone on board the plane.

Nineteen-year-old Air Force Sgt. Leopold Chouinard initially survived the crash with third-degree burns covering most of his body. He endured numerous surgeries, including skin grafts and the amputation of both legs, before dying of an infection on December 11, 1973. A second person who survived died at Massachusetts General Hospital a few hours after the crash.

Location: Logan International Airport (Google Map)
Type of Incident: Douglas DC-9 twin-engine jetliner struck a seawall and crashed.
Killed: 89. Two people survived the initial crash and died as a result of their injuries later.
Property damaged/destroyed: Plane was destroyed by crash, a portion of the seawall was torn out, and two approach light bars were damaged.
Lawsuits: Many lawsuits were filed against Delta by family members of the deceased and settled. Delta filed suit against the United States, alleging that negligence on the part of an air traffic controller contributed to the accident and that the Federal government was also liable for damages. The suit was ultimately dismissed in the U.S. Court of Appeals, First Circuit.
Cause: The pilots, flying by instrument only due to poor visibility caused by low clouds and fog, did not use flight instruments properly. This caused them to fly the plane too low and crash into the seawall. The investigation into the crash also found that air traffic control procedures were not standardized, and that there was poor communication between the tower and ground crews.
Result: Flight number was taken out of Delta's rotation and eventually reassigned to a different route.

WickedLocal.com: Disaster in the Fog
National Transportation Safety Board: Aircraft Accident Report (link opens pdf)
New York Times: 88 Die, One Critically Hurt In Jet Crash in Boston Fog
WCVB: Archived news footage relating to crash
U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts: In Re Aircrash Dis. at Boston, Mass., July 31, 1973​
United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit: Delta Air Lines Inc v. United States