Pemberton Mill Collapse: Remembering One of the Worst Industrial Accidents of the 1800s

By Karen Harris | November 4, 2022

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The Pemberton Mill collapse is Massachusetts worse industrial accident. (

By the mid-1800s, the textile industry was booming in the New England states. With a ready supply of cotton from the South and new advances in machinery, the textile industry was supporting the economy of the region and providing an important commodity and a major export. In the midst of this economic growth, there was also disaster. When one of the textile mills, the Pemberton Mill, collapsed, killing scores of workers, the tragic event became a call to action for workplace safety. Here’s what happened with the Pemberton Mill collapse in 1860.

Prelude to Disaster

Built in 1853 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the Pemberton Mill was a five-story brick building reinforced with metal beams. The structure, which was 280-feet long and 84-feet wide, was designed by engineer Charles H. Bigelow. John A. Lowell and his brother-in-law, J. Pickering Putnam, invested $850,000 – a considerable sum of money in those days, equal to about $28,000,000 in today’s dollars – in the building project. In less than four years, Lowell and Putnam sold the mill at a loss of about $350,000. The new owners, George Howe and David Nevins, St, cut as many corners as possible and took several questionable steps in hopes of turning the mill into a profitable venture as quickly as possible. 

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More and more heavy textile machinery was brought into the mill. (

Overloaded and Overpacked

One way that Howe and Nivens tried to increase profits was to ramp up production. The more product they could turn out, the more money they would make. They hired more and more workers, mostly young immigrant women who had come to the United States from Ireland, Scotland, and Germany, to pack into the mill.

Howe and Nevins also invested in more machinery to boost output at the mill. The machinery was added to every floor of the five-story mill and when there was concern voiced about the added weight, the owners had some steel plates welded to the beams and girders for extra support.

Rolling in the Profits

Howe and Nevins’ business decisions paid off. By the start of 1860, the Pemberton mill had 700 looms and 2,700 spindles in operation. Roughly 600 employees worked at the mill, which was seeing annual profits of about $1,500,000, or about $44,000,000 in today’s money. The mill’s owners were happy with the profits and things were going along smoothly. They saw no need to improve the working conditions or the building itself.