The Ashtabula Horror - An Ideal Tragedy Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Ashtabula Horror - An Ideal Tragedy

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Daniel McGuire slows the Number Five Pacific Express down to a cautious ten miles per hour

Philosophy and Exploration

Visibility was poor, and in places great mounds of snow blocked the winding route into Ashtabula, Ohio. It was 29 December, 1876, in between Christmas and New Year. Cold winds picked up and swept over Lake Erie, freezing the good people of Northwest Pennsylvania and Northeastern Ohio to their bones. The route of the Number Five on this night traced the outline of Lake Erie, passing through many of its smaller coastal towns. The ferocious blizzard had halted the Number Five at the eponymous town of Erie, Pennsylvania, preventing its progress for two-and-a-half hours.

Up front, McGuire drove the lead locomotive, Socrates. Behind him was a secondary locomotive, the Columbia, pulling three passenger, three express, one baggage and three sleeper cars and the lives of upwards of 150 souls. This particular line of rail wound its way through hills and valleys, and as the train rounded a final bend approaching a bridge, the mood of the passengers was calm. Expectant, even. For some, their journey had just begun, but for others, it was shortly coming to a close. The temperatures outside were well below freezing, but the passengers were warm and cosy, blanketed by their modern improvements, so far removed from the safe ignorance of only a generation ago. Each car had its own heating stoves, oil lamps and candles. Some passengers took advantage of the artificial light to play cards, collect their possessions or chat. Some slept in the shadows or lay silently in anticipation.

The faint lights of Ashtabula greet Daniel McGuire. As he begins the approach to the Ashtabula Creek bridge, he must speed the train up in order to beat the accumulated snow and the open power of the forceful winds. Having attained sufficient momentum, he knows he will be able to reach the end of the bridge, and begins to slow the train down. He knows from experience that the station is only 1,000 feet or so from the bridge, so he must begin to decelerate a bit or he'll pass the tiny depot.

As McGuire considers this, he hears a cracking coming from behind, and suddenly he has the sensation that the Socrates is climbing uphill. He twists around, and sees his companion locomotive, the Columbia, sinking down. He lets his throttle out, speeding his engine up, and the coupling between the two locomotives is sheared. The bridge, which just moments before had supported McGuire and the considerable weight of the Socrates, has collapsed. The twisted remains of the liberated track accompanies the Number Five, the Columbia and 150 men, women and children into the valley of the frozen Ashtabula Creek.

The engineer rolls off the western abutment of the bridge and is finally supported by the strength of the precious solid ground. He slows his engine to a stop, waiting through the awful silence of scores of people weightlessly falling more than 70 feet. The still more awful crash ensues and, in desperation, McGuire sounds his locomotive's whistle in order to gain the attention of the nearby train depot.

The Spirit of '76

'Here comes Number Five,' says John Manning, the manager of the Telegraph Office at the Ashtabula train station, hearing the signal from the locomotive. It comes as a relief for Manning, and the others there assembled, who remain waiting at nearly eight o'clock in the evening, having expected the train to come through hours ago. Americans always seem hurried and impatient around the holidays.

It was among the last days of 1876, the Centennial Year of the American Republic – 100 years since America famously declared itself an independent entity. In one century of progress, the United States - as the nation came to be known - stretched itself across a continent, tamed a frontier and became a mighty home to industry. Throughout the nation, celebrations were held to commemorate the importance of the year. The largest of these was the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, in the city where the Declaration of Independence had been signed in 1776. It was America's first 'World's Fair' type of gathering. It featured Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, the right arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty and the debut of Heinz Ketchup. The most celebrated item was a new kind of engine, which had the potential to change the nature of railroad travel the world over. The very idea of railroads and every new 'revolutionary' improvement to them stirred the people of 1876 with excitement.

Having fought their way across North America, the Americans had come to conquer the distances of their vast nation by rail. The infamous railroad magnates of the era happily built new lines, bridges and tunnels to provide transportation for all who would pay for it. Foremost among these tycoons was Cornelius Vanderbilt, a man whose fortune would eventually equal that of the Treasury of the United States Federal government. His railway, the New York Central, had absorbed a smaller railway named The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern earlier in the decade. As the Number Five inched its way along the old tracks of the Lake Shore, (as it was still colloquially referred to) Vanderbilt lay sick in his bed. Some have said that the sudden shock and outrage arising from the fate of the Number Five may have sped the decline of Vanderbilt, who died only five days after the incident.

Manning surveys the station. The men and women are standing anxiously. A few locals wait to greet a relative or friend coming on the Number Five, but many of those are changing trains at the station or departing for lands westward. Manning steps out of the station, into the bitter coldness of the evening. The winter season is closing its days sooner and sooner and it is dark outside. The whistle of the Number Five continues to sound, in several successions, but the sound does not seem to be getting any closer. The immobile lights of the Socrates shine through the thick storm, but there is also a faint, steady glow arising from the steep banks of Ashtabula Creek. Putting two and two together, he turns around and runs back to the station. 'Number Five is in the creek!' he shouts.

Honeymooners

Miss Marian Shepard lies in the sleeper car, Palatine, as the Number Five approaches Ashtabula Creek. It is not peaceful, and is not eerily quiet, but the atmosphere is one of unselfconscious normality, with the hum of conversation and the sounds of the train chugging away. The sudden sharp snap of the train's bell rope breaks into the background noise. One end of the rope whips a candle to the floor. Startled, Shepard knows that something has happened, but only when a violent bumping and a deafening crash breaks through the air does she realise that her life is in danger. Someone on the train calls out, 'We're going down!' and darkness falls throughout the car. She gropes around for something to brace herself with when the car lurches forward and drifts from underneath her. Total silence accompanies the fall and she hears the frightened breaths of her unseen companions. Like the calm before a great storm, Marian feels like she is falling for full minutes, into an unknown fate.

A man named JE Burchell of Chicago is travelling in another car. He hears two cracking sounds – one from the front, and one from the rear. A third cracking noise, louder than the others, portents a 'sickening oscillation' and Burchell is suddenly falling along with the train and his fellow passengers.

The train fell through the chasm created by the failure of the track. The train's first car struck the ground first, and landed upright, somehow. Most, if not all, of the passengers in that car survived the first impact. However, gravity cruelly pulled the Columbia onto the top of the lead car, and everyone inside was crushed to death.

Led by the pull of the first car and locomotive, the other cars fell into the ravine. Every tie and piece of rail from the far to the near side of the creek splintered and fell with the train. All that remained of the bridge was the eastern and western abutments, each the height of ten tall men. They stood facing each other, with expressions formed by the dancing flames rapidly forming over the scene. Once she struggled out of her car, Marian Shepard saw the tall abutments. In her mind's eye, she saw the rippling heights of Niagara Falls.

One of the passengers to suffer an unlucky fate that night was Mr Henry Rogers, a headmaster who was travelling with his wife back to Springfield, Ohio. They had just been married, and for their honeymoon had travelled to a very different Niagara Falls.

Bliss

The people who could, got out. Many could not. Legs pinned, arms crushed and the gross tangle of fellow humans kept many passengers inside of their cars even as the ice of Ashtabula Creek shattered and the cars began to sink. The doorways were all blocked by fallen heaters, but the windows were conveniently broken, and many passengers found their way out through them. Some passengers limped away from the scene - or were carried away - to seek medical help, but many stayed to help family members, or even total strangers, out of the wreckage.

The fire started in the last car. The train's fancy varnished woodwork facilitated the spread of the blaze throughout the car, and the night's cold gales carried the flames through the train until the entire scene erupted into a vision of hell. The flames prevented would-be rescuers from helping those in need. One woman was trapped in a car, screaming for someone to come and cut her legs off before the flames consumed her. No one was able to do so, and she would join the ashes of the night.

38-year-old Philip Bliss, a well-known hymn writer from Chicago, emerges from the crash with no major injuries. He looks back into the car, hoping to be able to pull his wife, Lucy, out with him. However, the seats have collapsed on top of her, and Bliss is unable to pull her out. He can not leave her, and he does not. He stays with her, till death does them part. The fire removes all traces of the two Blisses.

With time, help came. Only about 12 minutes after the crash, the town fire department's bells began to ring. The volunteer firefighters brought their engine, the Neptune, but the fire chief ordered his men to concentrate on search and rescue, rather than on putting the fire out. The banks of the creek were steep, and were blanketed with slippery snow. The only set of stairs leading down to the creek were lost in the fading whiteness of the night, and rescuers made their way down slowly and deliberately. The ferocious wind whipped the snow around the eyes of the would-be rescuers, making organisation that much more difficult.

People from the town and the depot quickly found out what was happening and many came to help. Some helped the injured, but some simply watched the spectacle from the top of the ravine. The truth is that Ashtabula was not a town prepared for this kind of accident, and they did not really know what to do.

The frozen Ashtabula Creek was reanimated. The creek was originally named by Native Americans, meaning 'Fish River'. It came bubbling to life, melted by the raging fire and the impact of the train. Some of the people who were rescued were initially set aside, onto the solid ice on top of the river. However, the raging fire melted much of the solid ice, drowning the helpless injured in the icy Fish River. It is said that the emerging river ran with a tinge of red and black, the result of the flow of blood and ashes.

The people trapped in the cars were either drowned, within reach of the solid banks of the creek, or else burned to death, amid a river of cool water. An 'awful chorus of moans' eventually died down as the injured were moved and the deceased lay quiet. The horrible smell of burnt human flesh clogged the nostrils of those still present. The fire ran out of fuel eventually, and only a faint glow remained. The ashes of its victims, not distinguishable from the ashes of the wood or clothes, began to collect snow and were tossed about by the storm. The blizzard did not stop, not even for this tragedy.

The rescue efforts were suspended by midnight, and a terrible quiet descended over the scene. Some of the dead were moved. It is supposed that some bodies floated under the ice, downstream, to decompose in Lake Erie. Most of those who lost their lives did not leave a body behind, only ashes. Only a few straggler bodies remained late into the night. Respectable citizens and the volunteer firefighters eventually felt that no more could be done, and they went home before midnight.

It was then that the less than respectable citizens emerged into the night. Robbers and thieves stole valuables from the smouldering remains of the train and the ashes of their former owners. Robbers murdered the remaining wounded in order to take their possessions. Within days, newspapers across America erupted with headlines about the 'Ashtabula Horror' as it was dubbed. Printing rumours alongside facts, the newspapers helped to spread anti-railroad sentiment. A pernicious rumour spread alleging that railroad officials had prevented firefighters from fighting fires, for insurance purposes. One contemporary news source perhaps put it best. The disaster was dramatically complete. No element of horror was wanting... It was an ideal tragedy.

The Engineering Marvel

Years before, trains safely crossed Ashtabula Creek over a simple wooden bridge. With engines and cars improving, though, so had to the bridges to support them. It was in 1863 that the President of Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, Amasa Stone, took a good look at the Ashtabula Bridge. Stone was an architect by trade, and was one of the first Americans to make a trade of building railroad bridges. Over time, he accrued a considerable fortune by building railroads across Ohio and investing his money in local mills.

Stone personally designed an all-iron span bridge to go over the Ashtabula Creek. Normally, such a crossing would have required iron reinforced with wood, but Stone took the unusual step of forgoing the wood. It was an 'experimental' design. Perhaps even more frightening than the experimental nature of its materials was the unusually long span of more than 150 feet from abutment to abutment. There were no ground reinforcements or supports built under the track, other than the two abutments on the ends. Iron beams formed a truss, supporting the tracks from underneath.

In 1865, the bridge was built. The iron was produced by one of Stone's other business ventures, the Cleveland Rolling Mills. By this time, Amasa Stone was a genuine millionaire, with all the arrogance which generally accompanies that distinction. The bridge was not an easy one to erect, and once it was initially put up, it had to be brought down again and reassembled. At some point during the process, Stone fired an engineer who questioned his design.

The bridge stood over the Ashtabula Creek for 11 years. If it had stood longer, it might have been considered a triumph of modern engineering. It passed all safety inspections, though there would subsequently be rumours of intimidation and bribery of railroad inspectors. The only unfavourable reports about the bridge come from the train engineers who passed over it, who sometimes heard a rumbling or snapping noise.

On 19 December, 1876 a man named Charles Collins inspected the Ashtabula bridge. It was less than a week until Christmas. He found no problems with the bridge. Of course, this doesn't mean that there weren't any problems. In fact, in places the iron had been filed down to fit into joints and elsewhere the iron beams were loose and out of alignment. Collins may have been forced into this conclusion, but as subsequent events would prove, it's impossible to know for sure now.

Ten days after the inspection, early in the day, a train safely passed over Ashtabula Creek, as so many did every day. As the train went over the bridge, the engineer heard a rumbling sound. A great blizzard was blowing that day, so he attributed the noise to the weather and didn't report the observation until later.

Loose Ends

Charles Collins, the Chief Engineer for Lake Shore who had inspected the bridge ten days before the collapse, visited the site of the crash, and was rumoured to have wept on seeing the terrible loss of life and destruction. The deaths of at least 90 people and the serious wounds of 60 others weighed heavily on his conscience that day. It was just two weeks into the New Year, only 16 days after the accident. An investigation had begun into the cause of the accident, and Collins came home after testifying for the investigation. In front of the jury, he had taken responsibility for the crash. Once home, Collins, overcome with grief and guilt, took a revolver to his head and ended his life.

The man perhaps most responsible - and least willing to take responsibility for the crash - was the railroad owner Amasa Stone. The formal investigation into the Ashtabula bridge collapse found him as arrogant and ill-tempered as ever. He admitted to no flaw in the design or construction of his bridge. He even went so far as to suggest that the Columbia jumped the tracks of the bridge and somehow managed to demolish the entire bridge, and bring the rest of the train with it. Later, he would claim that it was an act of god, perhaps a tornado (unseen and unheard anywhere else in Northwestern Ohio), which swept over Ashtabula Creek and cleanly knocked the bridge down. Noticeably, all of his explanations of how the bridge came down would absolve him of any moral and legal guilt.

Stone testified just four days after Collins killed himself, and he strongly defended the design. He even claimed that the bridge was overbuilt by design, to ensure safety. The people of Ashtabula, and newspapers across the country, condemned him as a murderer. His company was forced to pay half a million dollars in damages. This began a rapid reversal of fortunes for Stone. Several of the steel mills he owned began to fail and his business prospects looked bleak. On 11 May, 1883 he shot himself through the heart in his mansion.

Charles Collins was buried in Chestnut Grove Cemetery in Ashtabula, quite near to an obelisk which marks a mass grave of the unidentified remains of 25 passengers aboard the Number Five from that night in December. Amasa Stone was laid to rest somewhere else entirely.


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