The Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

A bizarre and little-known tragedy had a huge impact on one community.

Lexile Level: 610L / Guided Reading: R / DRA Level: 40

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Starter Level

Learning Objective

In this narrative nonfiction feature, students will learn about an event that led a community of immigrants to stand up against a large corporation. The story will build vocabulary and help students understand cause and effect.

Featured Skill

Cause and Effect

Content-Area Connections

Social studies: U.S. history, immigration, geography
Science: engineering, design

Key Skills

Cause and effect, vocabulary, drawing conclusions, inference, descriptive details, similes

Standards Correlations

This article and lesson support the following standards:
Common Core anchor standards: R.1, R.3, R.4, W.3, W.7, SL.1, L.4, L.5, L.6
TEKS: 3.2, 3.4, 3.13, 3.18, 3.20, 3.29, 3.30

Teaching Materials

Video Read-Aloud: The Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

Hear author Lauren Tarshis read the story accompanied by gripping photos and footage!

Vocabulary Slideshow

Activity Sheets

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Close Reading and Critical Thinking
Pause and Think
Quiz - On Level
Quiz - Higher Level
Reading Kit: Cause and Effect
Reading Kit: Descriptive Details - On Level
Reading Kit: Descriptive Details - Lower Level
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Lesson plan

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Watch a Video/Preview Text Features (25 minutes)

• This story is accompanied by a Video Read-Aloud, in which the article is narrated as gripping photos and footage help students visualize what’s happening. Consider showing the video as a “first read.”
• Look at pages 4 and 5. Ask students: Based on the title and subtitle, what is being shown in the illustration? Also be sure to read together the box that describes molasses, since students may not be familiar with it.
• For students who may find this topic upsetting, consider pointing out that the flood was a very rare occurrence. Emphasize the positive aspect of the story: Immigrants stood up for themselves by taking on a large corporation and received a large cash settlement.


Introduce Vocabulary (15 minutes)

• We have highlighted in bold the words that may be challenging and defined them on the page. Preview these words by projecting or distributing our vocabulary activity and completing it as a class. You can also play our Vocabulary Slideshow.
• Highlighted words: strain, waded, limp, officials, oozing, triumph


Set a Purpose for Reading (5 minutes)

•  Call on a volunteer to read the Think and Read box on page 5 for the class.

Reading and Unpacking the Text

First read: Read the story as a class. At the end of each section, use the Pause and Think questions to quickly check comprehension.
Second read: Distribute some or all of the close-reading questions and preview them together. Have students answer the questions in groups, then discuss the answers together. Finally, discuss the critical-thinking question.


Close-Reading Questions (30 minutes)

• Read the first section. What happened to the tank of molasses after years of strain? (cause and effect) The metal bolts holding the tank together popped out. The tank broke apart and molasses flooded everywhere.
• In “Violent Swirl,” what may have made the firefighter sure Anthony was dead? (drawing conclusions) Anthony was pinned to a lamppost when the firefighter found him. He couldn't move. When the firefighter grabbed Anthony's body, it felt lifeless.
 • “Trouble With the Tank” says that molasses needed to be stored, and a tank was built quickly. What can you infer about how this relates to the molasses flood? (inference; cause and effect) Because the tank was built quickly, it may not have been built properly, and it ended up bursting.
 • In that same section, how does the author describe the sounds made by the tank? (descriptive details) The tank made "weird, scary noises." The sides of the tank rumbled and groaned, sounding like a person was crying out in pain.
• In “The Forgotten Tragedy,” it says that on hot days, the scent of molasses rises up “like a ghost.” What does this simile mean? (simile) The scent is invisible like a ghost. Like a ghost in a movie, the smell rises from the ground. Also like a ghost, it reminds people of events from the past.

Critical-Thinking Question (10 minutes)

• The residents of Boston’s North End neighborhood were mostly poor and new to the United States. How did this affect what happened there? (cause and effect; inference) Because most of the residents of the North End were poor and new to the country, and maybe didn't speak English well, United States Industrial Alcohol might have thought it didn't have to listen to their concerns about safety.

• Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Think and Write box at the bottom of page 9.
• Have students work in pairs to underline details that answer the questions. They can take turns reading each paragraph to find the best details. Regroup as a class to discuss which details are most important.
• Have students write their letters in class or as homework.

Teaching Extras

Another Flood of Molasses

We were shocked to learn that Boston’s was not the only molasses flood. Amazingly, another tank of molasses ruptured in 1968, this time in Albany. Check out the original newspaper article.

Molasses Bombs?

If students are wondering how exactly molasses was made into bombs, here’s the lowdown: Molasses is heated up in a process called distillation. This turns it into a liquid called industrial alcohol, which was a key ingredient in explosives back in World War I.

Sneaky Treats

A fun fact that we learned while researching this article: When the molasses tank was leaking, the kids of the neighborhood would sneak up to the tank and dip sticks into the molasses for a tasty treat.

More on Immigrants

Learn more about how immigrants came to America in the early 20th century with this great book from the “What was?” series.

Cookies in the Classroom

For a fun hands-on activity, make these simple molasses cookies with your students! Even just showing your students the sticky syrup will hammer home the facts of the Boston Molasses Flood.

Genius Teaching Idea

You’ll love this teacher’s genius method for teaching nonfiction using word clouds. Her 4-day plan was created for our March/April nonfiction piece, but it can work for any Storyworks Jr. nonfiction. Great for visual learners, and fun for all!