Pemberton Mill in Lawrence collapses and burns, killing workers; January 10, 1860

On Tuesday afternoon January 10, 1860, the Pemberton Mill in Lawrence buckled and crashed, killing dozens instantly and trapping the workers inside.

Rescue teams rushed in, only to find “faces crushed beyond recognition.” Around 9:30 p.m. an oil lamp was knocked over, and flames spread quickly, leaving only “brick, mortar and human bones … promiscuously mingled”.

The five-story Pemberton Mill, built in 1853 in Lawrence, was financed by John A. Lowell and his brother-in-law J. Pickering Putnam, who sold the mill to George Howe and David Nevins during a financial downturn. Howe and Nevins jammed new machinery into the building, hired more workers and made it profitable. The weight of the machinery exceeded the design capacity of the building, and steel plates were welded to the beams and girders by the new owners.

The Boston Journal reported:

“The moans and cries for help of those in the ruins whose lives had not 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 Boston Globe described the scene the next morning:

“The scene after the fall was one of indescribable horror. Hundreds of men, women, and children were buried in the ruins. Some assured their friends that they were uninjured, but imprisoned by the timbers upon and about them. Others were dying and dead. Every nerve was strained to relieve the poor unfortunates, when, sad to relate, a lantern broke and set fire to the wreck. In a few moments the ruins were a sheet of flames. Fourteen are known to have been burned to death in the sight of their loved ones, who were powerless to aid them.”

Most of the workers were foreign-born women. The building was so filled with machinery that workers could feel it vibrating.
Most of the workers were foreign-born women. The building was so filled with machinery that workers could feel it vibrating.

Up to 145 people, mostly Irish and Scotch female workers, are believed to have been killed by the collapse and subsequent fire. There were also young children. Almost 300 more were injured. The Pemberton Mill collapse is the worst industrial accident in Massachusetts history. Engineer Charles Bigelow, who designed the mill, denied responsibility for the structural failure, but was found guilty of allowing malformed cast-iron columns to be used.

The Pemberton Mill was completely rebuilt and still stands. After the second Pemberton Mill was opened, new workers were brought in, who often reported seeing the apparitions of the dead workers walking the aisles, and then suddenly vanishing.


From An Authentic History of the Lawrence Calamity by John Dyer:

“Henry Nice, a brother of Thomas Nice, whose wife was killed in the ruins, relates an interesting narrative of his experience. He was employed in the boiler-house, and at the moment of the disaster was engaged in putting a wick into a lamp. He heard a noise which he cannot describe, and stood up for an instant, when he was struck on the shoulder by a heavy article. He thrust himself head foremost against a door opening outwards, and fell into the porch, the door and the space about him being instantly filled with brick, and his body confined to the most uncomfortable limits. A cloud of steam and dust penetrated the debris and nearly suffocated him, but by almost superhuman efforts he succeeded in digging a passage through the ruin and reaching a place of security.

Instead of fleeing from the scene of the disaster, he turned back to rescue those still living. Upon the floor of the card-room he found a girl, who boarded at No. 5 Pemberton Corporation, who subsequently informed her rescuer that she was alone in this country, but had a mother in Ireland. A piece of shafting lay across her neck, her knee was seriously lacerated, and the rim of a ‘roping can’ was pressing into her back.

Nice obtained a saw, and cutting away the boards and timbers from under her, had the satisfaction of seeing her borne away to a place of safety. He then continued the work of rescuing his unfortunate companions. Darius Nash, the third hand in the spinning-room, fell with the factory. Nice heard him scream for help, and creeping on his hands and knees amid the tangled ruins, he found Nash and a young girl lying close together. The latter was cheerful, and urged Nice to remove her companion first, as he was lying on her leg, being confined there by a spinning frame which rested on his side.

Nice thrust a strip of board through a hole above him, which attracted the notice of others, who cut a hole in the floor, through which Nash was drawn, badly hurt. Every effort was made to remove the machinery which imprisoned the heroic girl, without avail; and the fire sweeping over the spot, her young life went out amid the scorching heat.”

Further Reading

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