The Pemberton Mill Collapse
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2011
Industrial work in the 19th century was physically demanding, often conducted in dirty and dangerous surroundings, and sometimes deadly. Case in point: the collapse of the Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1860, and the accidental — but deadly — fire that ensued.
The five-story mill was built in 1853 by the Essex Land and Water Company to house the Pemberton Mills Corporation’s cotton cloth manufacturing operation. In 1857, when the market for cloth became depressed, the original owners sold the mill. In an effort to cash in on a resurgent market, the new owners installed as much manufacturing equipment as they could. According to George P. Little, author of The Fireman’s Own Book, published in 1860, the mill ran "constantly...until the day of the accident."
All that came to an abrupt halt late in the afternoon of January 10. Without warning, Little writes, the "mill gave way at the top near the southeast corner, and the floors…descended without breaking apart." Six hundred of the approximately 1,000 people in the mill at the time were trapped under what the Boston Journal later described as a "pyramid" of rubble, "rising over 50 feet [15 meters]."
Those who had escaped the carnage frantically began digging the victims out, and were soon joined by people from the neighboring area. The Boston Journal reported that, "notwithstanding the difficulties surrounding the work, over 200 of the imprisoned were taken out in safety, beams and iron pillars being moved about with the assistance of ropes."
Around 10 p.m., however, a rescuer’s lantern broke, spilling oil into the debris pile. The rubble ignited, and within minutes the pile "was wrapped in flames," according to the Boston Journal. Although the rescuers deluged the ruin with water, Little wrote, "the presence of cotton waste, saturated with oil, the floors rendered combustible by the dripping oil of the machinery, and above all the depth at which the fire originated and burned, rendered it difficult to extinguish."
The fire burned through the night, contributing to many of the 145 fatalities and the 166 who were injured. Most of the dead were women and children.
Shortly after the disaster, the mill was rebuilt on the same spot, where it stands to this day.
— Kathleen Robinson