Ashtabula Train Wreck – Historic Accounts

The number of persons killed can not be accurately stated, as it is not known exactly how many there were on the train, and it is supposed that some bodies were entirely consumed in the flames. The official list of the killed and those who have died of their injuries gives the number as fifty-five, but it is supposed to be somewhat higher.

On this page we give a diagram showing the construction of the bridge, which was of iron. It was built about eleven years ago and was supposed to be a structure of great strength. It had been, tested with the weight of six locomotives; heavy trains had crossed on both its tracks at the same time; it was believed to be well constructed of the best materials. Yet suddenly it fell under a weight far below its tested strength. No wonder that the traveling public anxiously inquire, “What was the cause?” Was it improperly constructed? Was the iron of inferior quality? After eleven years of service, had it suddenly lost its strength? Or had a gradual weakness grown upon it unperceived? Might that weakness have been discovered by frequent and proper examination? Or was the breakage the sudden effect of intense cold? If so, why had it not happened before in yet more severe weather? Is there no method of making iron bridges of assured safety? And who is responsible (so far as human responsibility goes) for such an accident—the engineer who designed the bridge, or the contractor, or the builders, or the railroad corporation? Was the bridge, when made, the best of its kind, or the cheapest of its kind? Was the contract for building “let to the lowest bidder,” or given to the most honest, thorough workmen? These and a hundred similar queries arise in every thoughtful mind, and an anxious community desire information and assurance of safety. The majority of people can not, of course, understand the detailed construction of bridges, but they do desire confidence in engineers, builders, contractors, manufacturers, who have to do with the making of them, and in the railroad companies, into whose hands they are constantly putting their own lives and the lives of those dearest to them.

Illustration from Harper's Weekly, January, 1877

Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, January 1877

New York Times, December 29, 1890

The Story of a Disaster — Anniversary of the Ashtabula Railroad Wreck — A Terrible Night and a Terrible Loss of Life–How a Relief Train Started From Cleveland–The Scene at Ashtabula Bridge.

No man who was a witness of any portion of the terrible railroad disaster at Ashtabula Bridge on the evening of Friday, December 29, 1876–fourteen years ago today– will lightly recall that event; nor will the pictures there displayed soon fade from his memory. The night itself was one not easily forgotten.

The wind filled the thoroughfares with pelting hailstones and snow, piled huge drifts upon one street corner and swept the stones bare at another; the unsteady lamps flickered and went out; the cold was intense, and those who had business abroad made short work of it, and with faces set against the blast made such headway as they might for shelter. The trains from the East and West were late, and the few persons who waited for the Pacific Express stood grimly about the Union Station at Cleveland, expecting the tedium of a long vigil, but with no premonition of the death harvest already reaped a little to the eastward.

Out of the grasp of the storm a mite of a Western Union messenger boy was blown into the office of a Cleveland daily newspaper. He shook the snow from his rubber coat, cleared his eyes from a film of ice, and drew from his pocket a slip of paper, which he handed to the city editor, and which read as follows:

9 p.m., December 29, 1876

The Pacific Express, Lake Shore Road, westward bound, has gone through the bridge at Ashtabula and is burning in the gorge, seventy feet below. Can I help you in any way.

George Lowe, Night Manager

There were various sharp suggestions in this, and room certainly for all the emotions of fear and horror the human mind can carry, but to the little group of men who heard it read there was one pressing idea that for the time threw all else into the background–work: and that of a decisive and effective character. Some were sent their ways upon varied lines of investigation, while to the writer of this fell the not inviting but truly exciting task of finding a place upon the relief train, sure to be sent, and of tying the office and the wreck together by telegraph at the earliest possible moment.

It was a hard race to the Union Station against the driving storm. The little telegraph office by the entrance was filled with operators, trainmen, and physicians who had been summoned from all directions, and officers of the road. Here was Charles Couch, Superintendent of the Erie Division, pale, but clear-headed, and giving orders in a manner that insured immediate obedience; Henry Stager, on whom fell the care of the dead or wounded upon all parts of the road; Charles Collin, the chief engineer, who knew ad few men did the defects of that bridge, but powerless to repair them, had been listening for this very crash for years — poor Collins, who locked himself into his bedroom and blew his brains out while the inquest was in progress rather than tell the world all he believed he knew.

The relief train was already making up in the station yard, while a pony engine had been sent to Glenville for Mr. Paine, Superintendent on the road. It was announced that a start would be made as soon as possible. The telegraph now and then gave a morsel of news to the silent and heavy-hearted groups in waiting; sometimes the number killed and wounded would be lessened and then increase; the slow progress at the wreck was told, how the pitiable excuse of the engine from Ashtabula had been dragged through snow and storm, only to stand useless and unused upon the brink of the chasm; how the scores of wounded were being carried up the steep banks to places of shelter; how the flames were finishing the work of destruction wrought by the fall; and how the people of the little town were working like heroes to save such lives and prevent as much suffering as possible.

An hour of suspense dragged by, and still no sign of the engine that had been sent plowing through the drifts for Mr. Paine. The depth of the snow and the slippery tracks kept the locomotive moving at a snail’s pace at best, while frequently the men upon it were compelled to shovel a path before it. But the run was completed at last, and when it crept into the eastern doors of the station all was ready for the desperate fight against the elements that the relief train must make before Ashtabula could be reached.

The clock pointed to a few minutes after 10 when the one relief car — all the Superintendent dared to attempt to carry — with its two heavy engines linked together ahead, started eastward in the very teeth of the gale. A number of railroad officials, a half dozen surgeons, a brace of reporters, and three or four half-crazed men who had friends on board the wrecked train, composed the relief party. Half a mile up the track a halt showed that the snow was too deep even for the twain of giant engines. The trainmen were out at the front immediately up to their waists in the drift and with them a gang of shovel men. And thus the road was fought for, mile by mile, for the three and a half hours required for the run over the short stretch between Cleveland and Ashtabula. From Painesville two engines had already been sent ahead, on telegraphic orders, and were breaking away over the last half of the run while the train was laboring upon the first, and consequently, progress from that point onward was not so difficult.

Twice halts were made at way stations to learn the latest of the wreck. The tragedy increased in proportions with each report. The gloom of those on board was deep enough at the start; it was terrible as the last half of the run was made. One man, a prosperous and cultured Cleveland businesses man, who had been t the Union Station waiting for the wrecked express, was on board, and all that he knew was that his wife and little daughter were on that train–but whether alive and safe, or wounded, or dead he had no means of learning. At each stop, he made desperate efforts to learn their condition, and it was not until he reached the wreck that he learned they were neither with the save nor the injured, but had been crushed side by side and burned out of all recognition by the flames.

As the relief train drew toward Ashtabula a flare of light against the sky and fitful clouds of smoke that veered with the winds above the abyss, showed where the bridge had fallen. The steady gleam of a headlight upon the western abutment showed where the engine stood that only the lightning quickness of Daniel McGuire had saved from the fall, for two locomotives had hauled the train from Erie because of the heaviness of the road, and when the break came the engineer in front threw his whole weight upon the lever, and with a mighty lunge the old Socrates parted its couplings and rushed up the already sinking rails to safety. The force of the engine was such that the tender jumped from the track and lay helpless and broken on the stone arch that formed a portion of the bridge. it was to Daniel McGuire that “Pop” Folsom, as he was dragged from under the second engine, bruised, maimed, white-faced, and bleeding, cried out: “Another Angola Dan!” The Socrates was soon covered with snow and ice, the fire out, the sharp winds lashing in vain fury about it, and its headlight still shining serenely and lighting the track clear up to the little station.

The relief train was one of relief indeed. It brought skilled medical and surgical aid; the authority that could assume responsibility, and bring order out of chaos; cheer to those who were able to be moved, and who were already longing for home; and the facilities by which the anxious thousands all over the land could learn whether their friends aboard the train were numbered among the living or the dead.


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019.

Also See:

American Transportation

The Mysterious Signal

The Railroad Crosses America

Railroad Lines

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