The Merrimack Valley is perhaps best known historically for its prominence in the Industrial Revolution. Among the most interesting — and most tragic — stories of life during that era involves Lawrence’s Pemberton Mill. Originally built in 1853, the mill was sold in 1857 to local industrialists George Howe and David Nevins, Sr., who immediately crammed the facility with machinery in an effort to increase productivity (and therefore profits).
As later assessments of the situation would uncover, the weight of the extremely heavy machinery jammed into the upper portions of the building — combined with cheap construction, including flimsy pillars supporting the floors — caused the building to collapse in a spectacular shower of bricks and rubble on Jan. 10, 1860. Nearly 800 people were at work during the disaster, which came to be known as “one of the worst industrial calamities in American history.” Of those people in the factory, an estimated 166 were injured … and another 145 never made it out of work that day.
The Boston Globe described the aftermath in gruesome detail: “The scene after the fall was one of indescribable horror. Hundreds of men, women, and children were buried in the ruins. A lantern broke and set fire to the wreck … fourteen are known to have been burned to death in the sight of their loved ones, who were powerless to aid them.” The vast majority of those injured and killed by the disaster were recent Irish and Scottish immigrants, many of whom were young women.
Despite increased calls for safety standards after the catastrophe, few steps were taken. Many of those who lost family members in the collapse became destitute due to a loss of income, and neither of the owners were punished for their irresponsible placement of the machinery. The mill was bought out by David Nevins, Sr. and reconstructed after the disaster on the same site where it stands today.