The Ashtabula Train Disaster

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Ashtabula River at the disaster site. Insert: The memorial in Chestnut Grove Cemetery

“Are you sure you know where you are going?” Zech asked as I parked at Cedarquist Park along the eastern bank of the Ashtabula River.

“I know exactly where we need to go,” I spoke solemnly. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been here.” Though it had been a number of years since I had last visited the spot, the location was still fresh in my mind. With Zech accompanying me, I had returned to the region to do a little exploring and to get better pictures of some of the places I had visited during my first visit to the Ashtabula region of Ohio.

“We’re going to have to take a little walk through the woods,” I continued. We followed a path and as we got closer to our destination I could hear the sound of falling water. We made a short detour to visit a waterfall and while photographing it the sound of a train passing above could be heard, unfortunately from our location we could not see it, but it sounded very close.

After we finished we walked over to the Ashtabula River and jumped down the bank onto the rocks that jutted out of the shallow river. Standing here we could see the modern bridge that crosses the river. On the night of disaster the icy waters of the creek were waist high, but on this day it averaged about one foot deep, though in some spots it may have been deeper, but not by much.

It was at this spot on the cold, snowy, windy night of December 29, 1876, one of the worst disasters in Ohio’s history occurred; a disaster that would be known as “The Ashtabula Horror.”

From all accounts the bridge was a scary sight to behold. The iron bridge was bolted and braced together for a length of one hundred and fifty feet and had little support as it spanned seventy feet over the Ashtabula River.

A blizzard raged outside as the residents of the community settled in for the day. Forty mile an hour winds blew snow wildly around. Snow was already three feet deep and due to the drifting it was over six feet deep in spots. The temperature was ten below zero on that fateful day.

Roughly 7:30 that evening the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway Train Number 5 crossed the bridge. The train consisted of two engines pulling eleven cars. The first of the two engines managed to make it safely across the bridge before it collapsed, allowing the rest of the train to fall. The cars did stay connected for a short period of time, but soon broke loose and fell into the gorge.

While the collapse was terrible enough, the wreckage caught fire from the stoves in the passenger cars. In the aftermath of the disaster, stories of heroic acts arose from the brave citizens who attempted to rescue the trapped souls. Sadly stories of people who performed evil acts of stealing from the dead also were reported.

The result was ninety-two of the one hundred and fifty-nine on board were killed. A number of the passengers were burned so badly they could not be identified and among those unidentified bodies were the remains of the famous hymn writer Philip Bliss and his wife, Lucy. The story of Philip Bliss can be found here: Philip Bliss.

Nothing at the spot tells of the disaster that occurred there. Nowadays, the Ashtabula River still flows towards Lake Erie, crossing beneath a modern bridge that still carries trains. Without knowing what the site looked like in the aftermath of the disaster it is almost impossible to imagine how the scene of horror appeared to the survivors and rescuers.

Zech and I left the park and headed south on Main Avenue before turning onto Grove Drive. Following the road, we were soon entering Chestnut Grove Cemetery. We followed the small signs along the roadways to the memorial which stands atop the hill overlooking the cemetery. We found a spot to park that would allow other vehicles to pass safely and walked over to the large monument.

The obelisk sits atop the graves of the unknown victims of the disaster. On one side is a listing of some of the known victims, but who were not able to be identified. Another side of the memorial states the disaster and the date. The monument was unveiled on May 30, 1895.

“Did you notice this?” Zech pointed to the list of victims on the base of the obelisk. “It identifies Philip Bliss, but not Lucy.” For some reason – one I haven’t been able to determine – Lucy is listed with Philip as: “P. P. Bliss and Wife.”

Chief Engineer Charles Collins, who had inspected the bridge ten days before its collapse, is buried in the family mausoleum near the memorial. Collins was present during the disaster’s aftermath and worked in the waist deep freezing waters of the river to rescue victims. In the days after the bridge collapse, Charles would often break down and publicly cry about the disaster. He attempted to resign his position but the railroad refused to accept it.

Charles supposedly committed suicide shortly after giving his testimony to the investigative jury. Modern sources have denounced the suicide theory. One of the doctors who first examined Collins’ body questioned it, stating that it was not a case of suicide. Who killed Charles? Was his death a result of his testimony against the railroad? Or was he killed by one of the disaster’s survivors? Or maybe he was murdered by the family of one of the victims? While the answer will never be known, it is known he is buried in the mausoleum located about fifty yards away from the train disaster memorial. Some claim to see him standing at the memorial weeping, but on this sunny day I found nothing out of the ordinary.

Amasa Stone, the railroad mogul who had designed and built the bridge, refused to accept any of the blame for the bridge collapse claiming it had been an act of God that destroyed the bridge. Stone even went as far as claiming that the act of God set the train on fire because there could be no way the stoves in the passenger cars could have caught the wreckage on fire. Stone remained defiant until the end. Seven years after the disaster, Stone committed suicide and was buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.

We left the Ashtabula Train Disaster Memorial in silence, remembering not only the famous Pennsylvanian taken in his prime, but all of those who lost their lives on that cold winter’s night.

Note: In researching the disaster, there has been a lot of confusion in regards to how many people were on the train and the number killed in the disaster. The exact number of victims will never be known, but most sources place the number at ninety-two. I’ve seen the number of victims ranging from eighty-three to ninety-eight, but ninety-two seems to be the most repeated number.

The exact number of people on the train that evening also has been debated. I’ve seen numbers ranging from one hundred and fifty-nine, which is the most repeated number, upward to three hundred people. The number one hundred and fifty-nine comes from a guess based upon the number of tickets in the conductor’s possession. The memories of the survivors add confusion to the people on board. Some claim that the cars were mostly empty while others remember the train as being packed. The total passengers on board does not take into consideration any railroad employees on board or others who did not have to purchase a ticket for one reason or another.

The exact number of the unidentified dead has also been questioned. I have found newspaper articles that list nineteen to thirty unidentified bodies. Most sources list twenty-five unidentified bodies, which is the number of names on the monument in Chestnut Grove Cemetery and the number that seems to be fairly consistent with most early sources regarding the disaster. These names are people known to have been on board but were burned beyond recognition, so they were not able to be positively identified.

Many sources claim that there were only nineteen unidentified victims, despite there being twenty-five names listed on the monument. I was able to discover a source for this confusion: there were twenty-two unidentified victims buried in nineteen graves at Chestnut Hill Cemetery in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. The nineteen graves that were originally dug is, I believe, the source for people claiming there were only nineteen unidentified victims. The other three unidentified bodies were buried after the original mass burial.

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