Valleywood: Family Affair

Michael A. Sandberg, Matt Sandberg and Louise Sandberg. Photo by Melissa Desjardins.

Local Moviemaking is a Family Affair – Pemberton Mills Remembered: The Merrimack Valley has a lot to offer the movie industry, and one local family, the Sandbergs of Reading, is producing an hour-long documentary to shed light on the details surrounding the collapse of Lawrence’s Pemberton Mill more than 150 years ago. In one of the worst industrial tragedies in Massachusetts’ history, the five-story Pemberton Mill collapsed suddenly on Jan. 10, 1860. Flames from an overturned oil lantern engulfed the rubble, and the death toll was estimated at 145, with more than 160 others injured.

The idea for a documentary came about when Louise Sandberg, an archivist at Lawrence Public Library, was compiling an exhibit on the catastrophe. “It’s tremendously dramatic,” she said. “And it was a period of time when we weren’t paying too much attention to the people who worked in the mills.” Louise’s son Matt, a digital cinematographer, was looking for a project to hone his talents. Her husband, Michael A. Sandberg, Ph.D., an associate professor of ophthalmology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and at Harvard Medical School, had the skills to help pull the production together.

After receiving $4,000 in grants from the Lawrence Cultural Council, the project was under way. Louise gathered the necessary resources, Michael wrote the screenplay and Matt handled the filming and editing. The resulting film, “The Case against Captain Bigelow,” explores the possible causes of the mill’s collapse and the role of Charles H. Bigelow, its designer and chief engineer.

The documentary delves into the technical aspects of the incident as well as the personal experiences of those affected by it.

In a letter never before made public from a woman named Elizabeth to a friend named Lucy, the emotions associated with being a local resident at the time of the tragedy are expressed in moving narration. Visuals of the aged stationery draw in the viewer.

The film’s emotional aspects are offset by a team of experts that lend integrity to the story by educating viewers on the possible causes of the calamity.

Dr. Robert Forrant of the UMass Lowell History Department offers his insight in an unscripted, on-screen interview.

Newspaper illustration 'Ruins of the Pemberton Mills at Lawrence, Massachusetts... The morning after the fall.' Courtesy Lawrence Public Library.

“If anything will make this film a success,” Michael Sandberg says, “it will be [Dr.] Forrant’s on-camera contribution.”

Patricia Reeve of the history department at Suffolk University in Boston offers an additional perspective that acts as a counterpoint to Dr. Forrant’s.

“Their interviews are very crucial,” Matt Sandberg said. So, too, was the input of other contributors, including forensic structural engineer Tzu-Yang Yu, also of UMass Lowell. His in-depth analysis of the possible cause of the collapse validates the Sandbergs’ own conclusion.

Quality interviews, a well-told story, artistic sketches and a digitally animated re-creation of the mill’s collapse come together in this locally-made film. Michael Sandberg says a discussion about the possible cause of the Pemberton Mill tragedy has not been attempted in any other medium.

The project, which began in early 2009, is near completion. Despite the occasional disagreement one might expect when working with family, the result is a well-developed documentary that balances accurate information with a compelling story. The Sandbergs are hopeful that the film, soon to be made available to local audiences, will attract the interest of PBS and the History Channel.

To learn more about “The Case against Captain Bigelow” contact Louise Sandberg at or (978) 620-3606.

Take a walking tour of the Lawrence Pemberton Mills disaster site.
Created by Dan Koff of Lawrence, the founder of New Relic Media, the self-guided tour allows you to visit the actual site, following a path marked by information-bearing signs. Short video segments can be accessed on a hand-held device, your home computer, or at Lawrence Heritage State Park.

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