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Lesson 2: What Caused the Pemberton Mill Disaster

Created by UMass Lowell graduate student/Methuen High School social studies teacher Stephanie Turmel under the supervision of UMass Distinguished Professor of History Robert Forrant and Lawrence History Center staff (2019).

Unit Plan #2 : Remembering the Pemberton Mill Tragedy

Lesson 2: What Caused the Pemberton Mill Disaster 

Lesson Summary: Students will investigate the causes of the Pemberton Mill Collapse by looking at primary and secondary sources. 

Lesson Overview: Teacher Introduction - “Today we are going to look at one of the earliest and deadliest workplace tragedies that took place in Lawrence and investigate what were the causes of the Pemberton Mill tragedy and what can the Pemberton Mill Tragedy tell us about what it was like working in industrial America in the nineteenth century. Before we get started on the investigation, we are going to activate our prior knowledge and views of labor laws and working conditions by completing a Four Corners activity."

  1. Opener/ Warm Up Activity - Four Corners Set up: To Prepare the room for activity, label the four corners of the room with signs reading: “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly Disagree.”

    • Write debatable statements on board or read one of the statements aloud and ask students to move to the corner of the room that best represents their opinion.
    • Once students are in their places, teacher will facilitate discussion and ask for volunteers to justify their position.
    • Repeat for each debatable statement. Notes: Encourage students to ask questions and challenge each other's ideas. Remind students to switch corners if someone presents an idea that causes a change of mind. Four Corners Debate Statements

      1. People today generally feel safe when they go to work.
      2. Employers are responsible for the happiness of their workers.
      3. All people are treated fairly in the workplace.

      Teacher Tip: These statements should engage students in a discussion about jobs such as: Does the work people do affect how safe people feel on the job? What other nineteenth century work would be dangerous? Are there laws today that protect people at work and/or school from fire? What are they?


  2. The Pemberton Mill Timeline Activity - Pemberton Mill Timeline (Resource #3) Teacher Intro: “Before beginning our investigation of the Pemberton Mill Disaster, you will preview main events of the Pemberton Mill Tragedy by viewing a timeline and writing down three questions that you would like answered about this event. You will also determine whether there is anything missing from the timeline. 
  3. Pemberton Mill Investigation - Pemberton Mill Investigation Student Worksheet (Resource #4) Teacher Intro: “We are now going to begin our investigation of the Pemberton Mill Tragedy. Working in groups, you will visit three stations where you will answer questions about the tragedy. To answer the questions, you will analyze different primary sources and record your findings on a graphic organizer.” (Resource # 4) Note: This activity can be done in stations, where students rotate to each station or teacher can use activities individual and customize lesson plan. 

    1. Pemberton Mill Investigation - Station # 1 (Resource #5): In small groups, students review and analyze primary sources, and brainstorm possible causes of the Pemberton Disaster.
    2. Pemberton Mill Investigation - Station #2 (Resource #6): In small groups, students review and analyze primary sources, and respond to two questions: How did people in Lawrence respond to the tragedy? What specific things did they do?
    3. Newspaper Headline - Station #3 (Resource #7): In small groups, students review and analyze newspaper accounts and respond to the question “How did the newspapers cover the Pemberton Mill Collapse?”


  4. Reflection: What can the Pemberton Mill tragedy tell us about working in industrial America during the 19th century? This question will be answered on Resource #4.

Lesson Extension: Research Questions: What is in place now so these disasters don't happen today? Try to imagine the workplace 50 years from now. What type of laws will need to be in place for workers in the future?