Lawrence was an important mill town situated on the Merrimack River in northeastern Massachusetts. Appropriately enough, one of its grandest buildings was Pemberton Mill, a mighty five-story brick edifice with an overall length of 85 m (280 ft.). Built in 1853, this busy cotton mill produced woven textiles and clothing on some 700 looms. The mill was at full capacity on January 10 1860 when, late in the afternoon and without warning, the whole construction suddenly came crashing down. A large proportion of the 900 workers in the mill at the time were women and Irish immigrants. Most of them were buried in the ruins. The site of the collapse resembled a battlefield with piles of shattered beams, mangled iron and crushed brickwork littered with human bodies.
A frantic rescue operation was mounted and many victims were dug out and pulled to safety. But this tragedy had yet to deliver its final and cruelest act. A lantern being used by one of the rescuers was knocked over and started a fire which quickly consumed the entire ruins. Contemporary accounts describe the terrible screams of people trapped in the rubble who had sensed that rescue was close at hand but then suffered an even more horrifying fate in the flames. The investigation into the disaster found that the collapse had been caused by defects in the cast-iron pillars supporting the factory floors and by weak mortar used in the brick walls. As so often with accidents during the industrial age, a subsequent inquest did not find anyone accountable, even though managers had almost certainly known that the loading of the upper floors with heavy machinery had exceeded normal safety limits.
When was the Pemberton Mill Disaster: January 10 1860
Where was the Pemberton Mill Disaster: Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA
What was the Pemberton Mill Disaster death toll: More than 120 people were killed and at least 160 injured.
You should know: A local magazine reported many remarkable tales of survival, including the feat of a young woman who with great presence of mind managed to escape by climbing down a chain hoist from the upper floors as the building collapsed about her.