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The Ashtabula Railroad Disaster

Updated on August 8, 2015

The “Ashtabula Horror”

There’s little to be seen today where the terrible Ashtabula, Ohio Railroad Disaster, took place on December 29, 1876. The “Ashtabula Horror,” as it is sometimes referred to, was the worst railroad disaster in American history up to that time.

The tragedy occurred when a Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway Train, the Pacific Express, plummeted into the Ashtabula River, killing more than 90 of its some 159 passengers and crew. About 100 yards from the railroad station at Ashtabula, the bridge collapsed under the train and it fell some 75 feet into the river below before being engulfed in a ball of fire.

The bridge was the first Howe-type wrought iron truss bridge ever built. It was designed jointly by Charles Collins and Amasa Stone, both of whom ended up committing suicide following the wreck 11 years later. Collins had not wanted to build the bridge feeling it was still "too experimental.” However his protests fell on deaf ears and his superiors ordered it built anyway."

The extent of loss caused by the collapse was unimaginable. Two out of every three passengers on the ill fated train were lost. Of the 160 passengers known to be on board, 59 were found or accounted for.

For many years after the Lake Shore road was built, there was a long wooden trestle-work, but as the road was improved, it was replaced by the iron Howe truss spanning 159 feet.

The descent into the river valley on either side was steep precipitous as the hills and slopes were piled with heavy drifts of snow. So, after news of the wreck reached the town towards morning, the cold and wind had increased which, with the waist deep snow, that had drifted waist-deep made all work extremely difficult.

According to railroad officials, the disaster occurred shortly before eight o'clock. Three hours behind schedule, the Pacific Express, which had left New York the night before, traveled slowly along through the blinding storm. Two engines struggled with its’ 11 car load. And when the leading locomotive broke through the drifts and rolled across the bridge, it was moving under ten mph. The train crept across the bridge, the leading engine having barely reached solid ground on the other side, when some part of the bridge snapped.

Chestnut Grove Cemetery

There was an ear splitting cracking of beams and girders as the whole train but the lead engine broke through the framework and fell in a heap of crushed and splintered ruins at the bottom. Even with the howling wind and storm, the crash was heard a half a mile away…and then came the cries of the maimed and suffering piled among the dying and dead.

The fortunate few who had escaped injury hastened to escape from the demolished cars crawling through windows into waist deep freezing water. Great heaps of ruins covered the one hundred men, women and children whose lives had so suddenly been snuffed out.

Almost instantly, the lamps and stoves had set fire to the cars and in less than ten minutes every car was in flames. Men who had managed to reach safety went back after their wives and children only to find them suffocating and roasting in the flames. The neighboring residents who had rushed to the scene to provide assistance found their prompt response still too late. By midnight, the cremation was complete.

When morning came, all that remained of the Pacific Express was a row of car wheels, frames and twisted iron. The wood had burned completely away, the ruins covered with white ashes. A few masses of charred, smoldering flesh sent up little clouds of sickening vapor.

On the crest of the western abutment, half buried in snow, stood the lone remaining locomotive. As the bridge fell, the engineer had given it a quick head of steam thrusting the engine forward and burying itself in snow. The other locomotive had been pulled backwards into the abyss by the falling train. The trains’ engineer managed to escape with only a broken leg.

The arrival of another train from Cleveland to aid victims was backed into position and before daylight wounded were being prepared for transportation to hospitals. The two hotels nearest the station already contained many of the injured scattered about on temporary beds or floors. As dawn arrived the beds in the sleeping-car of the special train were made up and the wounded that could be moved were transferred there.

A survivor of the disaster, Mr. Burchell, of Chicago, described the disaster: "The first thing I heard was a cracking in the front part of the car, and then the same cracking in the rear.” she said. “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” continued Burchell. “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, 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.”

The exact number of people who perished may never be known as it isn’t certain how many were actually on the train. The official list cites number as fifty-five, but it is believed to be somewhat higher.

According to some, the train was said to have been carrying as much as $2 million in gold bullion. If it was, it was lost in the valley below and remains there today.

Whether there is lost treasure or not, it is believed the ghosts of those who died don’t linger at the site of their death, but rather at the Chestnut Grove Cemetery where their remains were buried. Visitors to the graveyard have reported seeing ghostly apparitions which are sometimes captured on film. Screams have been heard in the darkness and some claim a burning smell is often present.

Just a short distance away from the mass grave is the mausoleum of Charles Collins, the inspector who had missed the fatal flaws in the Ashtabula Bridge. His ghost is said to haunt the place as well. According to local tales the spectral figure of a man has often been seen near the tomb. He appears weeping profusely saying “I’m sorry, I’m so very sorry.”


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      You are very welcome optimus. I do my best.

    • optimus grimlock profile image

      optimus grimlock 6 years ago

      great history lesson thaks for the great read!