It has always been thought the Ashtabula Bridge was completed in the summer of 1865. In fact, we can find this date in many modern publications about the Ashtabula Disaster. However, new evidence has come to light debunking what we once thought was fact.
A recent discovery by historian and wreck site archeologist - David Tobias, and his son-in-law has shed new light on this subject.
According to Engineering News – Vol. IV from 1877, published by Geo. H. Front, Chicago p. 23-24 “The bridge was built in the Lake Shore machine shops, in Cleveland. Work on the bridge began in the Fall of 1864.” Further down in the same paragraph it states “The bridge was completed and in position about the 1st of July 1865.” Note: It says the bridge was completed, but says nothing about it being put into service. Why? If we keep reading, we find out this was the date they tested the bridge, found it sagged under its own weight, the braces were put in wrong and the bridge needed more support beams. “It was put together on supports, and when it was ready for the test, as was supposed, the workmen were ordered to remove the wedges. As they took these from under the bridge it began to settle. The superintendent of the work and others became alarmed, and ordered the men to stop taking out the supports. This they did, but if all the scaffolding had been removed the structure would undoubtedly have fallen of its own accord, it was so heavy. This defect was well known by the men employed upon the work at the time, but it was kept very quiet. No one knew anything about it if he were not present when the removal of the wedges was going on, or was intimated with the leading men employed upon the structure.
As soon as it was learned that a mistake had been committed several engineers made a thorough examination of the job. They found that the truss beams had been placed so that the strain would come on the broadest side, and that these beams should have been so put up that the weight would have fallen upon the narrowest side of the beams, that is, edgewise, or in the direction of their greatest diameter. As soon as this defect was discovered it was accepted as the great mistake in the bridge, and as the cause of the structure settling down when the supports were removed.
The defect in the structure having been discovered, men were set to work to change the truss beams, setting them up edgewise, and putting in four beams where there had been only three, and five where there had been four beams. Thus, while the bridge was made stronger, considerable weight was added to it. The bridge was finally completed in July 1866. Or about one year after the error was discovered. Correcting the defect was slow work since it involved the chipping off by hand of the bridge blocks, and the cutting of heavy beams so that they world clear the bolts.
About the 1st of July 1866, the bridge was tested, preparatory to being put in use, in the presence of Mr. Amasa Stone, Mr. Charles Collins, now Chief Engineer of the road and several other prominent gentlemen.”
We know from Joseph Tomlinson obituary when he was hired by Stone and that he started his planning and drafting of the bridge plans in 1863, so the entire building process from planning to fabrication to erecting took three years.
This is also supported in the Rev. Stephen Peet’s book “The Ashtabula Disaster” p. 198. “…the false work remained in position from October, 1865, to November, 1866.”
It is very possible that after the bridge was tested and placed in service July of 1866 they may have decided to leave the false work in place, just in case they had other problems that might need to be fixed or it could have taken the men four months to remove all that timber in the false work.
As we research more about this disaster, we uncover more interesting facts. Who knows what we will uncover next!
To read the full article about these dates in Engineering News Vol. 4 of 1877 go to this link and scroll to pages 23-24: