The Pemberton Mill was a five-story factory building in Lawrence, Massachusetts. It was built in 1853 and was 280-feet long and 84-feet wide. Its construction was completed at the then astronomical cost of $850,000.
Charles Bigelow, a respected engineer, designed the mill which sat on the polluted banks of America’s foulest waterway, the Merrimack River. During the severe financial panic of 1857, Messers Lowell and Pickering who commissioned and owned the mill, sold it at a loss to George Howe and David Nevins for $500,000.
To recoup their investment, Howe and Nevins crammed heavy machinery into the mill. By 1860, the mill accommodated 2,700 spindles and 700 looms. It was earning Howe and Nevins an estimated $1.5 million a year.
In order to save costs at the time of construction, Bigelow did not use iron beams as was the practice of the day. Additionally, the floor structure was under-girded by substandard iron pillars that were cheap and brittle. What’s more, the mill’s brick walls were improperly mortared and supported. The Scientific American noted, “there is now no doubt that the fall of the building was owing to the most gross negligence and want of fidelity in casting the columns."
January 10th, 1860 was a mild day, unseasonably warm. Some of the second-shift sisters as they called themselves had taken advantage of the temperate weather and were eating their lunches on benches outside the looming factory.
At 4:52 PM , Mary O’Keefe, a spindle-girl newly arrived from County Sligo, Ireland and working the factory’s second shift, was nearly finished with her modest lunch—a tomato sandwich with butter on a hard roll, a bottle of un-pasteurized milk and a small green apple. As she was packing up, she later said to “The Boston Journal-American,” “I heard a rumble like an old man snoring. More a bear than a man, perhaps.”
Moments later, Mary heard the resounding clang and crash and screams of the collapsing factory. She saw George Howe, the owner of the factory rush from its premises. Dozens, however, were killed instantly and more than 600 workers—many of them young women like Mary and children as young as four, were trapped in the twisted ruins.
“The Boston Almanac and Business Directory” noted, “The Pemberton Mills at Lawrence, Mass., ... (did) fall-in while nearly 800 operatives are at work, and bury many in the ruins. About four hours after the fall, a fire breaks out, and destroys those not extricated from the ruins. More than 115 people perish by the awful catastrophe, and 165 are more or less injured.”
O’Keefe in a letter to her mother back in Ireland wrote, “There were, coming from nowhere a sudden sharp rattle and then a crash like a thousand dishes crashing to a tile floor. I herd [sic] the screams of those inside, agonizing, and then a heap of nothing but twisted iron, splintered beams and imprisoned human flesh.”
In all, between 90 and 145 people died, the largest industrial disaster until the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911.In the wake of the disaster, area ministers delivered "sermons on God’s inscrutable wrath" but it was apparent that blame lay in the manner in which the factory was built and operated.