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Summary about the Ashtabula Train Disaster

The Ashtabula Disaster was the deadliest and most notorious bridge failure of the 19th Century and a transforming event in American History. It happened in Ashtabula, Ohio on December 29, 1876 during a raging blizzard. In this town off the shores of Lake Erie, an all-iron railroad bridge collapsed sending one of the most luxurious trains to ever ride the rails, train No.5 - The Pacific Express, plummeting 70ft into a frozen river. Of the 170 souls that were onboard, only 75 survived, most with serious injuries. Of the 95 who perished, 47 were identified, 48 were unidentifiable.



The Ashtabula Bridge was built and collapsed in the historical context of the tensions between the first big business in America, the railroad industry, along with the people who used the railroads and  State and Federal governments that had no desire to regulate them. During this time of great industrial growth and technological development, people were both fascinated and fearful of the many new innovations that were claiming to make their lives easier. However, the lack of regulatory oversight of steam trains, steamships, and bridges, coupled with experimentation and huge expansion, led to an accident rate that aroused great alarm for the American public. For the first time in American history the country was not being led by elected politicians, but by the captains of industry. The loss of ninety-five lives in a small city off the shores of Lake Erie stunned the entire nation! Ashtabula forced our nation to look at safety issues because of the public outcry brought about by the national press. This was not just one more railroad accident or bridge failure; it was a foreshadowing of the coming Populist Movement of 1891. People were demanding the government take action regarding the railroad’s abysmal safety record. Changes were made and laws were passed because of Ashtabula. This disaster was a crucial moment that fueled change in the relationship between big business, government, and the public. Every movement needs a rallying point: The Ashtabula bridge collapse was one of those moments.

Amasa Stone

Amasa Stone – Railroad President and Bridge Designer
Amasa Stone was President of the Lake Shore Michigan Southern Railroad – Cleveland and Erie Division from 1856 to 1867.
Despite newer and better technology for iron bridges, Stone took the bridge he was most familiar with, the wood and iron Howe Truss pattern, and converted it to an all iron system using the heavier wrought iron I-beams from his brother's rolling mill company. He built this bridge with protests and arguments over the design by the engineer who was hired to draft the drawings, Joseph Tomlinson. Because of these disagreements, Tomlinson quit the project approximately two months before construction was to start.  The bridge was 154ft long from abutment to abutment and stood 70ft above the Ashtabula River below. Stone was sure his bridge would be a masterpiece and make him famous throughout the world. 

Ashtabula Bridge Just After Opening

Bridge on Opening Day

Bridge Construction and Erection
The planning, fabrication and  erection of the lengthy, all-iron bridge took three years, due to many construction problems and design flaws. During the erection of the bridge, it failed twice to bear its own weight. Because of these failures, modifications had to be made using some rather unorthodox construction methods and proving that Joseph Tomlinson was right about some aspects of the bridge's design.  Finally, in July of 1866, when the Civil War had already ended, the bridge  was completed.

Charles Collins

Charles Collins – Railroad Chief Engineer
Charles Collins, the Engineer-in-Charge, was normally the man responsible for overseeing bridge construction and inspections for the entire line. Unbelievably, Stone did not include Collins in any aspect of the bridge’s design, construction, or erection. Perhaps that’s the reason Collins took such little interest in the bridge when problems were encountered and he was asked for help.  However, after the construction Collins was placed in a difficult situation, he was charged with the maintenance and care of the long, all iron bridge, but knew little about its unique technical requirements. A conscientious and sensitive man, the grief over this tragedy overwhelmed him. On the night of the disaster, a relief train, loaded with medical supplies, surgeons and railroad workers was sent from Cleveland, OH to Ashtabula, Ohio. Onboard was Charles Collins, who sobbed uncontrollably when he witnessed the aftermath of the crash.

The Columbia Engine Down

The Storm and the Train
Train No. 5, The Pacific Express, began its journey in Buffalo, NY. She followed the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway line southwest toward Ashtabula. Although trains were rolling as usual, the weather certainly hampered travel and delayed many routes. Winters off the shores of Lake Erie where Ashtabula, Ohio is located are brutal. On the night the accident occurred, the entire railroad line was being pummeled with blizzard strength winds and heavy, blinding snow.


The Pacific Express was the most luxurious train the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern railroad had on its line. It consisted of two engines, the Socrates and the Columbia - the second engine (Socrates) was added in Erie, Pa. She had two express cars, two baggage cars, two day passenger coaches, a smoking car, a drawing-room car called "Yokahama;" the New York sleeper named "Palatine;" the Boston sleeper named "City of Buffalo" and the Louisville sleeper called “Osceo.”  The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern railroad company spared no expense on this train. All who rode her did so in unprecedented comfort. In terms of luxury, she was the "Titanic" of her day.

Phillip Bliss

The Passengers
The unsuspecting passengers that rode on the No. 5 during the holiday season came from all walks of life and from all over the country. By all reports, the train had a festive atmosphere in spite of the horrible weather conditions. Several passengers were notable for either who they were prior to the accident or for what they did after the accident. One such passenger was Phillip Bliss. The beloved hymn writer and singer was well-known at the time for writing over 300 songs. He was on his way to Chicago to meet the famous evangelist, Dwight L. Moody.  Although Bliss’s voice and creative mind were silenced that night, his songs are forever sung, even to this day, in churches throughout the world.

The Wrecked Columbia Engine

Wreckage in the Gorge


The Collapse and Crash

At 7:27 p.m. the Pacific Express rounded the final bend. Running between 5 to 10 miles per hour, she began her slow crawl across the bridge. She was in the process of slowing down because the station was just ahead. At first, the crossing proceeded normally. The bridge creaked and popped as always, but held as the Socrates, the Columbia, and then the first few cars pushed forward onto the north side of the bridge. At 7:28 p.m. the engineer of the Socrates, Dan McGuire, heard the distinct sound of a loud crack. He knew immediately something was wrong, terribly wrong.


The bridge was breaking apart. The engineer of the Socrates pulled the throttle and ran his engine the remaining few feet to the abutment and to safety. The other cars were dragged forward when the second engine, the Columbia, broke from the Socrates, crashed into the abutment, and fell in the gorge. Passengers were jostled and thrown about by a violent series of bumps when the cars derailed and the track disintegrated underneath them. Then there was darkness…silence…falling. Cars began to crash one by one into the frozen creek. It was a sickening and horrifying sound as the first cars slammed into the gorge, then the rest, falling or being launched off the edge, striking the car in front of it.


The Fire
Many who escaped the wreck did so in the first few precious minutes before any rescuers arrived. Although a few rescuers got to the scene quickly, because of the blizzard conditions, it would take between 30 minutes to one hour after the fire bell rang for citizens to get to the accident site. While straining against the blizzard strength winds and trudging through high drifts, sadly, some became so fatigued they simply couldn't continue.
What made the crash even more tragic was the fire that started on the east side of the bridge within minutes of the crash from the overturned stoves used to heat the passenger cars: Stoves, incidentally, that didn’t meet the safety standards of the day. In addition, during the rescue the Fire Chief, G.A. Knapp, was said to have shown up to the disaster drunk and so inept that he failed to take command of the scene. As a result, three fire engines sat idly by while the wreck burned from one end to the other consuming everything in its path.

James Manning

Heroes and Villains
As in all disasters, heroes always emerge and this one was no different. Citizens formed a bucket brigade in a vain attempt to control the fire. Others valiantly braved the fire and ice to help victims to safety. Citizens even opened their homes to be used as make shift emergency rooms. One heroine was a passenger. Miss Marion Shepard, of Ripon, Wisconsin, a young woman traveling alone on this frightful night, was hailed by a fellow passenger as one of the bravest women he ever met. Credited with unusual bravery in the face of danger, she was one of many who risked her life to help others.
Thieves also emerged out of the crowd. By far one of the most troubling aspects of this tragedy, was that some men whose hearts were dark
, came crawling out of the woods and stole from the innocent and hurting survivors.  They actually robbed victims while pretending to help. There were many, many heroes on that dreadful night, but the amount of thievery done would cast a long, dark shadow over Ashtabula for years to come.

During the horror and excitement of the disaster two telegraph operators at the Ashtabula depot stayed at their post for 50 hours, with no breaks or rest, sending telegraphs messages for help and stopping other trains heading toward the bridge. John P. Manning (head telegraph operator) and his assistant Charles B. Leek, America’s first African American telegraph operator, faithfully performed their duties by requesting a relief train with surgeons and medical supplies. Over the next several days they would report the disaster to the nation and help families find loved ones who were saved or lost during the disaster. John Manning trained Charles Leek, who learned telegraph operations in 5-weeks, a LS & MS railroad record. Because of Leek’s outstanding service to the railroad, he would later be promoted to head of telegraph operations in Ashtabula and have several white men working under him. In those days this was unheard of!

Charles B. Leek

America's First African American Telegraph Operator


Three separate investigations were conducted. One by a Coroner’s Jury, formed with citizens of Ashtabula under the direction of the acting coroner, Judge Edward W. Richards. The other was a joint investigation by a special committee of the Ohio Legislature and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). All three found serious problems in the design, construction, and erection of the bridge. The Coroner’s Jury would also conclude that the fire was ultimately the fault of the railroad company, and that the Fire Chief and first responders should also hold some blame.

Murder and Suicide

This disaster would claim two more victims in the days and years to come. Sadly, days after testifying before a special committee of the Ohio Legislature about his role in the bridge collapse, Charles Collins was found dead in his Cleveland, Ohio home with a single gunshot wound to the back of the head. His death was originally said to be a suicide, but two independent autopsies preformed one-year later on his exhumed body would rule it a murder. Still shrouded in mystery, his murder or suicide remains unsolved. In another twist, blame and scorn for this disaster would forever stain Amasa Stone’s professional reputation and haunt him for the rest of his days. Many believe it was one of the reasons he would commit suicide seven-years after this horrifying crash.

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