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The Pemberton Mill Disaster

On a wintry evening in 1860, textile workers in the huge Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, Mass., heard an odd rattle followed by a long, ear-splitting crash. Part of the building’s brick wall bulged and exploded, and then within seconds the mill collapsed. Tons of machinery fell through disintegrating floors, bringing screaming millworkers with them.

The Pemberton Mill, collapsed.

The Pemberton Mill, collapsed.

The collapsed building formed a pyramid 50 feet high, the Boston Journal reported.

The moans and cries for help of those in the ruins whose lives hand ot been immediately crushed out, mingled with an alarm rung out by the factory bells, called almost the entire community to the spot. Darkness lent additional horror to the scene, for while a thousand hands were ready to rescue it was impossible to know whence the calls for assistance came.

The Jan. 10, 1860 collapse of the Pemberton Mill was the worst industrial accident in Massachusetts history, rivaling the Triangle Shirtwaist fire 50 years later. Between 90 and 145 people were killed, and another 166 injured.

A Fortune To Build

The Pemberton Mill was built by John Lowell and his brother-in-law, J. Pickering Putnam. It was five stories high, 280 feet long and 84 feet wide. It cost $850,000 to build, a fortune.

The mill was built by the Essex Company under the supervision of Capt. Charles Bigelow, a highly regarded engineer. In Lawrence he had built a dam and canal, a machine shop and mills.

During the financial panic of 1857, Lowell and Pickering sold the Pemberton Mill to George Howe and David Nevins for $500,000. (The Nevins Memorial Library in Methuen is named after him.)

The partners crammed more heavy machinery into the building to increase their profit. At the time of the disaster, the mill held 2,700 spindles and 700 looms.

Pemberton Mill Collapses

The mill collapsed while 800 millworkers, mostly women and children, were working. They were Yankees from Maine and New Hampshire and recent immigrants. More than half were Irish immigrants, having arrived during the potato famine, but there were also natives of Scotland, Germany and Switzerland.

Dozens of workers were killed right away. Hundreds of others were trapped in the wreckage. Howe escaped before the building collapsed.

More than 200 people were taken out of the building, the rescuers using ropes to move beams and pillars. The rescuers called out to the trapped workers and gave them water, coffee and encouragement.

When the sun set, rescuers built bonfires to light their way. The fires revealed “faces crushed beyond recognition, open wounds in which the bones showed through a paste of dried blood, brick dust and shredded clothing.”

Fire!

Around 10 p.m. two men climbed through a crevice with lanterns to rescue a young woman. One of the lamps broke. The flames raced across the cotton waste and wood, some of it soaked with oil. The Boston Globe reported 14 people were burned to death in front of their loved ones, who could do nothing to help them.

One man cut his own throat rather than be burned to death. He survived, but later died of other injuries.

By midnight the screams of the trapped and burning victims were silent.

Many of the bodies were mangled beyond recognition. They were laid out in a large room on an upper story of Lawrence City Hall so their friends could recognize them.

After the disaster, a jury found Charles Bigelow responsible for the collapse because he allowed malformed cast-iron columns to be used. Bigelow claimed he didn’t know there was anything wrong with the pillars.

The Pemberton Mill was completely rebuilt and still stands.

To see a documentary, The Case Against Capt. Bigelow, click here. You can take a self-guided walking tour of the disaster site. Click here.