- Historic Sites
The Working Ladies Of Lowell
Proud and independent, the farm girls of New England helped build an industrial Eden, but its paternalistic innocence was not to last
February 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 2
Dusk fell over the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, a few minutes before five o’clock on January 10, 1860. In the five-story brick textile factory owned by the Pemberlon Manufacturing Company, lamps began to flicker in the ritual of “lighting-up time.” The big building—nearly three hundred feet long and eighty-five wide—rumbled unceasingly with the noise of its hundreds of machines for turning cotton into cloth: its scutchers and spreaders, carders, drawing frames and speeders; its warpers and dressers; and its power looms for weaving the finished fabric. Inside, the noise was higher-pitched, a relentless squeak, clatter, and whirr from the belt-and-shaft system that transmitted water power to the machinery. Some six or seven hundred “hands,” mostly women, were at work that afternoon. Those near the windows could look through the twilight at the factory yard, with its two lower buildings running out at right angles from the ends of the main plant. Next to the yard lay the canal which carried the waters of the Merrimack River to the giant water wheels, and beyond that was a row of frame boardinghouses for the employees. Sometime after seven o’clock, bells would jangle and the workers would stream across footbridges over the canal, home to dinner.
But not that night. Suddenly there was a sharp rattle, and then a prolonged, deafening crash. A section of the building’s brick wall seemed to bulge out and explode, and then, literally in seconds, the Pemberton Mill collapsed. Tons of machinery crashed down through crumpling floors, dragging trapped, screaming victims along in their downward path. At a few minutes after five, the factory was a heap of twisted iron, splintered beams, pulverized bricks, and agonized, imprisoned human flesh.
Bonfires, lit to aid rescue workers, made pockets of brightness in the gathering night. But the darkness was merciful, hiding sights of unforgettable horror. Girls and men were carried out on stretchers, with arms and legs torn from their bodies, faces crushed beyond recognition, open wounds in which the bones showed through a paste of dried blood, brick dust, and shredded clothing. The worst was yet to come, however. At about 9:30 P.M., the moans of pain, delirium, and cold coming from those still pinned in the wreckage changed to screams of panic. Someone scrambling through the ruins had upset an oil lantern. Flames raced through the oil-soaked wood and cotton waste, drove back doctors, rescue crews, and spectators (many of them relatives of the mill workers), and snuffed out the final shrieks. Next morning saw only a black and smoking mass of “brick, mortar and human bones … promiscuously mingled” at the scene of the tragedy.
There were ninety dead—fourteen of them unidentifiable or never found—and a long list of crippled and hospitalized. The casualty list read like a cross section of New England’s labor force. There were Yankee girls like Mary York, of Brighton, Maine, and men like Ira Locke, of Derry, New Hampshire. But there were also Nancy Connelly and Bridget Doyle and Kate Harridy, and many others whose names were of Ireland’s “ould sod.” ‘liiere were men like the Swiss George Kraclolfer, the German Henry Bakeman, and the Scotch-Irish Robert Hayer, who had come a long way to suffer at the edge of a New England canal. And there was not a church in Lawrence—Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Unitarian, Universalist, Episcopalian—that did not have parishioners to mourn or to console on the Sunday after the accident.
What had gone wrong? A lengthy coroner’s inquest did a certain amount of hedging, but certain unpleasant facts emerged. During the factory’s construction, in 1853, cast-iron pillars supporting the floor beams had been shown to be cheap and brittle. They went in nevertheless. Extra machinery had been crowded into the upper floors, ignoring already questionable load limits. Brick walls had not been sufficiently reinforced against the outward thrust of those overburdened doors. After the disaster, the ministers of Lawrence spoke sermons on God’s inscrutable wrath, but it was clear that human oversight and corner cutting on expenses bore much of the blame.
This seemed to point the finger at the owners, David Kevins and George Howe, who had bought the factory from its first owners in 1857, during a financial panic. Yet neither man was callous or dishonest. Both undoubtedly shared the shocked dismay of their fellow businessmen in the New England Society for the Promotion of Manufactures and the Mechanic Arts, who, ironically, had scheduled a dinner in Boston for that dreadful January 10. Nevins and Howe had acted in response to pressures which they themselves did not fully understand, and such guilt as they bore was partly the guilt of the generation of men who had brought industry to New England’s hills forty years before. Those men had nursed lordly dreams of progress and profit through the machine, and some of their visions of growth and gain and uplift had been realized. But industrialism, as America was to learn, brought pain and perplexity with it as well. The horror at the Pemberton Mills was a symbol of another collapse: that of an experiment in creating a strifeless industrial society showering blessings alike on workers and capitalists. Like most such experiments, it expected too much of human nature and counted too little on the unforeseen. For a time, however, it gave a thrill of promise, its beginnings went back beyond Lawrence, to the early days of the Republic.