On a quiet hill overlooking the City of Lawrence, Massachusetts is a monument memorializing the 145 mill workers killed on January 10th, 1860 when the Pemberton Mill collapsed. Another 166 were injured. Many victims were women and children. As recent immigrants to America, the victims were buried at Bellevue Cemetery and this simple monument marks time serving as a reminder of the souls who perished that day.
The Pemberton Mill disaster remains one of the worst industrial accidents in history. If it were to happen today the mill owners would be imprisoned for criminal negligence. The mill was built by the Essex Company in 1853 and was sold at a loss to George Howe and David Nevins, Sr. four years later during an economic downturn. Howe and Nevins jammed more machinery into the building to make it more profitable. This proved disastrous as three years later the building collapsed on itself with 800 mill workers inside.
Immediately after the collapse rescuers converged on the pile of rubble to try to dig victims out. Sometime during the rescue a lantern caused a fire that quickly grew to an uncontrollable inferno as oil-soaked wooden beams became tinder. Rescuers could hear dozens of people screaming in terror as the flames raced through the rubble, eventually extinguishing the voices one by one.
This is one of the most horrific stories I’ve ever read about, and it happened along the banks of the Merrimack River in Lawrence. I’ve heard about the Pemberton Mill disaster, but I never really knew the extent of the tragedy. For the young mill workers hoping to earn an honest wage in America, this was a brutally cruel end to their hopes and dreams.
David Nevins, Sr. lived a long life, becoming a wealthy and generous resident of Methuen, Massachusetts. The library in town is named after him. Howe lived a long life too, but seems to have been less generous with his money. The names of the workers who perished in the mill are long forgotten by history. But their final moments serve as a stark reminder of what can happen when you stretch the limits of safety in the workplace.