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Ashtabula Train Wreck - Historic Accounts

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Wreck of the Pacific Express Ashtabula Bridge Disaster, Ashtabula, Ohio, 1876

Wreck of the Pacific Express Ashtabula Bridge Disaster, 1876.





The Ashtabula, Ohio Railroad Disaster, often referred to simply as the Ashtabula Disaster or the Ashtabula Horror, was one of the worst railroad disaster in American history. The event occurred on December 29, 1876 when a Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway Train, the Pacific Express, plunged into the the Ashtabula River, about 100 yards from the railroad station at Ashtabula, Ohio. It's topped only by the Great Train Wreck of 1918 in Nashville, Tn.


More than 90 of its 159 passengers and crew were killed when the bridge collapsed and the train fell some 70 feet into the river below before igniting into a roiling ball of fire.


The bridge, designed jointly by Charles Collins and Amasa Stone, both of whom ended up committing suicide, was the first Howe-type wrought iron truss bridge built. Though Collins was reluctant to go through with the building the bridge as he felt it was still "too experimental," higher powers prevailed, the bridge was built, and lasted only 11 years before it collapsed.


Historical Accounts:

Chicago Tribune - December 30, 1876

The proportions of the Ashtabula horror are now approximately known. Daylight, which gave an opportunity to find and enumerate the saved, reveals the fact that two out of every three passengers on the fated train are lost. Of the 160 passengers who the maimed conductor reports as having been on board, but fifty-nine can be found or accounted for. The remaining 100, burned to ashes or shapeless lumps of charred flesh, lie under the ruins of the bridge and train.

The disaster was dramatically complete. No element of horror was wanting. First, the crash of the bridge, the agonizing moments of suspense as the seven laden cars plunged down their fearful leap to the icy river-bed; then the fire, which came to devour all that had been left alive by the crash; then the water, which gurgled up from under the broken ice and offered another form of death, and, finally, the biting blast filled with snow, which froze and benumbed those who had escaped water and fire. It was an ideal tragedy.

The scene of the accident was the valley of the creek which, flowing down past the eastern margin of Ashtabula village, passes under the railway three or four hundred yards east of the station. Here for many years after the Lake Shore road was built, there was a long wooden trestle-work, but as the road was improved, this was superseded about ten years ago with an iron Howe truss, built at the Cleveland shops, and resting at either end upon high stone piers, flanked by heavy earthen embankments. The iron structure was a single span of 159 feet, crossed by a double track seventy feet above the water, which at that point is now from three to six feet deep, and covered with eight inches of ice. The descent into the valley on either side is precipitous, and, as the hills and slopes are piled with heavy drifts of snow, there was no little difficulty in reaching the wreck after the disaster became known.


The disaster occurred shortly before eight o'clock. It was the wildest winter night of the year. Three hours behind its time, the Pacific Express, which had left New York the night before, struggled along through the drifts and the blinding storm. The eleven cars were a heavy burden to the two engines, and when the leading locomotive broke through the drifts beyond the ravine, and rolled on across the bridge, the train was moving at less than ten miles an hour.  The head lamp threw but a short and dim flash of light in the front, so thick was the air with the driving snow. The train crept across the bridge, the leading engine had reached solid ground beyond, and its driver had just given it steam, when something in the undergearing of the bridge snapped.


Ashtabula Disaster

19th Century illustration of the Ashtabula Disaster.


For an instant, there was a confused crackling of beams and girders, ending with a tremendous crash, as the whole train but the leading engine broke through the framework, and fell in a heap of crushed and splintered ruins at the bottom. Notwithstanding the wind and storm, the crash was heard by people within-doors half a mile away. For a moment there was silence, a stunned sensation among the survivors, who in all stages of mutilation lay piled among the dying and dead. Then arose the cries of the maimed and suffering; the few who remained unhurt hastened to escape from the shattered cars. They crawled out of windows into freezing water waist-deep. Men, women and children, with limbs bruised and broken, pinched between timbers and transfixed by jagged splinters, begged with their last breath for aid that no human power could give.


Five minutes after the train fell, the fire broke out in the cars piled against the abutments at either end. A moment later, flames broke from the smoking-car and first coach piled across each other near the middle of the stream. In less than ten minutes after the catastrophe, every car in the wreck was on fire, and the flames, fed by the dry varnished work and fanned by the icy gale, licked up the ruins as though they had been tinder. Destruction was so swift that mercy was baffled. Men who, in the bewilderment of the shock, sprang out and reached to solid ice, went back after wives and children and found them suffocating and roasting in the flames.


The neighboring residents, startled by the crash, were lighted to the scene by the conflagration, which made even their prompt assistance too late. By midnight, the cremation was complete. The storm had subsided, but the wind still blew fiercely, and the cold was more intense. When morning came, all that remained of the Pacific Express was a row of car wheels, axles, brake-irons, truck-frames and twisted rails lying in a black pool at the bottom of the gorge. The wood had burned completely away, and the ruins were covered with white ashes. Here and there a mass of charred, smoldering substance sent up a little cloud of sickening vapor, which told that it was human flesh slowly yielding to the corrosion of the fires. On the crest of the western abutment, half buried in the snow, stood the rescued locomotive, all that remained of the fated train. As the bridge fell, its driver had given it a quick head of steam, which tore the draw head from its tender, and the liberated engine shot forward and buried itself in the snow. The other locomotive, drawn backward by the falling train, tumbled over the pier and fell bottom upward on the express car next behind. The engineer, Folsom, escaped with a broken leg; how, he cannot tell, nor can anyone else imagine.

There is no death-list to report. There can be none until the list of the missing ones who traveled by the Lake Shore Road on Friday is made up. There are no remains that can ever be identified. The three charred, shapeless lumps recovered up to noon to-day are beyond all hope of recognition. Old or young, male or female, black or white, no man can tell. They are alike in the crucible of death. For the rest, there are piles of white ashes in which glisten the crumbling particles of calcined bones; in other places masses of black, charred debris, half under water, which may contain fragments of bodies, but nothing of human semblance. It is thought that there may be a few corpses under the ice, as there were women and children who sprang into the water and sank, but none have been thus far recovered.

Cleveland Leader - December 30, 1876

Ashtabula doomed trainThe haggard dawn, which drove the darkness out of this valley of the shadow of death, seldom saw a ghastlier sight than was revealed with the coming of the morning. On either side of the ravine frowned the dark and bare arches from which the treacherous timbers had fallen, while at their base the great heaps of ruins covered the one hundred men, women and children who had so suddenly been called to their death. The three charred bodies lay where they had been placed in the hurry and confusion of the night. Piles of iron lay on the thick ice, or bedded in the shallow water of the stream. The fires smoldered in great heaps, where many of the hapless victims had been all consumed, while men went about in wild excitement, seeking some trace of a lost one among the wounded or dead.

The list of saved and wounded having already been sent, the sad task remains of discovering who may be among the dead. The latter task will be the most difficult of all, until the continued absence of here and there a friend will allow of but one explanation - that he was among those who took this fatal leap.

All the witnesses so far agree to the main facts of the accident. It was about 8 o'clock, and the train was moving along at a moderate rate of speed, the Ashtabula station being just this side of the ravine. Suddenly, and without warning, the train plunged into the abyss, the forward locomotive alone getting across in safety. Almost instantly, the lamps and stoves set fire to the cars, and many who were doubtlessly only stunned, and who might otherwise have been saved, fell victims to the fury of the flames.


On the arrival of the Cleveland train, the surgeon of the road organized his corps of assistants, and made a tour of the various hotels, where the wounded were attended to, such help being given to each as was possible. The people of Ashtabula lent a willing hand, and all that human skill and money could do to save life or ease pain was done. The train which came from Cleveland for the purpose was immediately backed into position, and long before daylight the least wounded were being prepared for transportation to Cleveland, to be sent to hospitals or their homes.


The scenes among the wounded were as suggestive almost as the wreck in the valley. The two hotels nearest the station contained a majority of these, as they were scattered about on temporary beds on the floors of the dining-rooms, parlors and offices. In one place, a man with a broken leg would be under the hands of a surgeon, who rapidly and skillfully went at his work.

In another, a man covered with bruises and spotted over with pieces of plaster, would look as though he had been snowed upon, except when the dark lines of blood across his face or limb told a different story. In some other corner, a poor woman moaned from the pain which she could not conceal, while over all there brooded that hushed feeling of awe which always accompanies calamities of this character.

Towards morning, the cold increased and the wind blew a fearful gale which, with the snow, that had drifted waist-deep at points along the line made all work extremely difficult.

At 6 o'clock, the beds in the sleeping-car of the special train were made up and such of the wounded as could be moved were transferred there.


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