Ashtabula Train Wreck – Historic Accounts

Cleveland Leader – December 30, 1876

The 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 overall 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.

Harper’s Weekly Magazine – January 20, 1877

Ashtabula Disaster, Harpers Weekly, January, 1877

Ashtabula Disaster, Harper’s Weekly, January 1877

Our illustration shows the scene of the terrible railroad accident at Ashtabula Creek on the night of December 29, 1876. The train, consisting of eleven cars drawn by two engines, reached the bridge over Ashtabula Creek about eight o’clock and was moving at a low rate of speed. The engines had crossed in safety, when the bridge, without warning, gave way, and the whole train, with the exception of the leading engine, the couplings of which broke, was precipitated into the ravine, a distance of seventy-five feet. The banks are steep, and the furious snow-storm that had been raging for several hours rendered it difficult for those who hastened to the scene of the disaster to reach the wreck. To add to the horror of the situation, the cars took fire from the stoves, and many passengers who were not killed outright by the fall were burned to death. Imprisoned by heavy fragments of the broken cars, or unable to move on account of injuries, men, women, and children met death in this agonizing form. Some, it is supposed, were drowned.

Help arrived early from Ashtabula village, but nothing could then be done to save life, except to remove the wounded, who had already been taken from the cars to places where they could have surgical attention. The heat from the burning wreck was intense, and in the confusion of the moment, the means which might have been used to extinguish the flames were not thought of until too late. At the water-works, within 150 yards of the burning cars, lay 500 feet of hose, the coupling of which exactly fitted a plug within pistol-shot of the fire, the plug being connected with a powerful pumping apparatus, and there being sixty pounds of steam in the pump boiler. The hose could have been pouring a stream on the fire within five minutes but for somebody’s fault or stupidity.

A survivor of the disaster, Mr. Burchell, of Chicago, describes the scene in vivid colors: “The first thing I heard was a cracking in the front part of the car, and then the same cracking in the rear. Then came another cracking in the front louder than the first, and then came a sickening oscillation and a sudden sinking, and I was thrown stunned from my seat. I heard the cracking and splintering and smashing around me The iron-work bent and twisted like snakes, and everything took horrid shapes. I heard a lady scream in anguish, I Oh! help me!’ Then I heard the cry of fire. Someone broke a window, and I pushed the lady out who had screamed. I think her name was Miss Bingham. The train lay in the valley in the water, our car a little on its side, both ends broken in. The rest of the train lay in every direction, some on end, some on the side, crushed and broken. The snow in the valley was nearly to my waist, and I could only move with difficulty. The wreck was then on fire. The wind was blowing from the east, and whirling blinding masses of snow over the terrible ruin. The crackling of the flames, the whistling wind, the screaming of the hurt, made a pandemonium of that little valley, and the water of the freezing creek was red with blood or black with the flying cinders.

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