Through the centuries, new designs were developed to build things we needed. As the railroad moved across the nation, track laying came across deep gorges and flat plains. Of course, the flat plains were easy to deal with, and trains could simply go around any hills in the area, but the rivers and gullies were a bigger problem. They needed bridges, and so Charles Collins and Amasa Stone jointly designed a bridge to be used at Ashtabula, Ohio. It was the first Howe-type wrought iron truss bridge built. Collins was worried about the bridge, thinking that it was “too experimental” and needed further evaluation. Nevertheless, higher powers prevailed, and the bridge was built. Collins had been right to be concerned. The bridge lasted just 11 years before it collapsed.
On December 28, 1876, a Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway train…the Pacific Express left New York. It struggled along through the drifts and the blinding storm. The train was pulling into Ashtabula, Ohio, shortly before 8:00pm on December 29, 1876, several hours behind schedule. The eleven cars were a heavy burden to the two engines. The leading locomotive broke through the drifts beyond the ravine, and rolled on across the bridge at Ashtabula at less than ten miles an hour. The head lamp could barely be seen because the air was thick with the driving snow. The leading engine reached solid ground, and the engineer had just given it steam…when something in the undergearing of the bridge snapped.
What followed was a horror beyond horrors…not only for the victims, but for the rescuers as well…maybe even more so for the rescuers. As the bridge crumbled beneath the weight of the train, the train and its 159 passengers fell 70 feet into the river below. More than 90 people, passengers and crew, were killed when the train hit the river and ignited into a huge ball of flames. Only the lead engine escaped the fall. As the bridge fell, the engineer gave 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 engineer escaped with a broken leg. The proportions of the Ashtabula horror are still only approximately known. Daylight, brought with it the opportunity to find and count the saved. It also revealed the fact that two out of every three passengers on the train were lost. Of the 160 passengers who the injured conductor reports as having been on board, fifty nine were found or accounted for as surviving. The remaining 100, burned to ashes or shapeless lumps of charred flesh, were lying under the ruins of the bridge and train. Every possible element of horror was there. First came the crash of the bridge, the agonizing moments of suspense as the seven laden cars plunged down their fearful leap to the icy riverbed. Then the fire, that devoured all that had been left alive by the crash. The water that gurgled up from under the broken ice brought with it another form of death. And finally, the biting blast of freezing air filled with snow, that froze those who had escaped the water and fire.
For the rescuers, the horror had just begun. I can’t think of anything worse than seeing those bodies after they were horribly mangled, drowned, and burned…some beyond recognition, some completely cremated. The number of persons killed cannot be accurately stated, because it is not known exactly how many there were on the train. It is supposed that some of the bodies were entirely consumed in the flames, as well. The official list of those killed and those who have died of their injuries, gives the number as fifty five, but it is suspected to be somewhat higher. There is no death list to report…and in fact, there can be none. There are no remains that can ever be identified. The three charred, shapeless lumps recovered were burned beyond recognition. For the rest, there are piles of white ashes in which were found the crumbling particles of bones. In other places masses of black, charred debris, half under water, which may contain fragments of bodies, but nothing that resembled a human body. It is thought that there may have been a few corpses under the ice, as there were women and children who jumped into the water and sank, but none have been recovered. Periodically, as people began looking for people that were missing around the country, and they were able to place them, as possibly on the train, more supposed victims have been identified…at least there is the possibility that they were a victim.
The Ashtabula, Ohio Railroad Disaster, often referred to simply as the Ashtabula Disaster or the Ashtabula Horror, was one of the worst railroad disasters in American history. The event occurred just 100 yards from the railroad station at Ashtabula, Ohio. It’s topped only by the Great Train Wreck of 1918 in Nashville, Tennessee. Charles Collin, the chief engineer, who knew as few men did the defects of that bridge, but was powerless to repair them, had been listening for this very crash for years. Collins, locked himself in his bedroom and shot himself while the inquest was in progress rather than tell the world all he believed he knew. Collins was found dead in his bedroom of a gunshot wound to the head. He had tendered his resignation to the Board of Directors the previous Monday. Collins was believed to have committed suicide out of grief and feeling partially responsible for the tragic accident, however, a police report at the time suggested the wound had not been self inflicted. Documents discovered in 2001 and an examination of Collins’ skull suggest that he had indeed been murdered. Amasa Stone committed suicide seven years later after experiencing financial difficulties with some foundries he had interests in, suffering from severe ulcers that kept him from sleeping, and scorn from the public over the disaster.