Little Bits of History

Worst in America

Posted in History by patriciahysell on December 29, 2013
Ashtabula Bridge disaster

Ashtabula Bridge disaster

December 29, 1876: A bridge over the Ashtabula River collapses. The bridge was 11 years old and was the first Howe-type wrought iron truss bridge built. The bridge was designed jointly by Charles Collins and Amassa Stone. There is some speculation today stating Collins was reluctant to use the design as it was “too experimental” but caved in to pressure from the railroad.

A blizzard struck northeastern Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania dropping lake effect snow over the area. The heavy, wet snow fell all day, blanketing the region. The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway Train No. 5, The Pacific Express, left Erie, Pennsylvania heading west. They were 2.5 hours late in departure and had four pusher locomotives added to help plow through the ever deepening snow. The train left Erie at 3 PM and at 7:24, while approaching Ashtabula, Ohio’s railway station, passed a heavy freight train heading east. This train had made it over the fated bridge.

About 100 yards past the station, the train approached the bridge at 7:27 PM. Engineer Daniel McGuire was in the lead locomotive, “Socrates.” He felt the train shift after hearing a loud crack. The trailing engine, “Columbia,” seemed to sink. Another crack sounded and the south truss fell away. The center of the bridge sunk as Socrates passed and McGuire opened the throttle, trying to gain purchase on the western side.

The entire bridge buckled as Socrates passed onto the west abutment. The shifting tracks derailed both engines. The coupling broke free and Socrates made land. Columbia and 11 cars tumbled to the Ashtabula River 70 feet below with later cars crushing passenger cars already at the bottom. Many of those lucky enough to survive the crash then found themselves trapped by fires that spread through the wreckage, started by the stoves used for heat. There were 159 passengers and crew on the train: 64 were injured and 92 were killed either immediately or died later of injuries (48 of the victims were unrecognizable or totally consumed by the flames).

“The haggard dawn which drove the darkness out of this valley and shadow of death seldom saw a ghastlier sight than was revealed with the coming of this morning.”

“On each side of the ravine frowned the dark and bare arches from which the treacherous timbers had fallen, while at their base the great heaps of ruins covered the hundred men, women and children who had so suddenly been called to their death.”

“The three charred bodies lay where they had been placed in the hurry and confusion of the night.”

“Piles of iron lay on the thick ice or bedded in the shallow water of the stream. The fires smoldered in great heaps, where many of the hapless victims had been all consumed, men went about in wild excitement seeking some traces of loved ones among the wounded or dead.” – all from the Cincinnati Gazette describing the fire

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: The crash was loud enough to be heard in town and many locals ran to offer assistance. By the time they arrived, some of the wounded passengers had made it to shore but out in the water, fires were blazing. The objective was to rescue those outside the burning cars and no effort was made to rescue anyone trapped inside. Not all things work out well and many of the wounded or dead were robbed by the “helpful” citizens. An investigation into the disaster began the following day and lasted for over two months. The investigation led to findings of faulty design and construction. It also found that had the bridge been adequately inspected in the eleven years the bridge was in use, the inadequacies would have been noted. The materials used were not found to be at fault, but simply the design. Collins was found dead and ruled a suicide shortly afterwards, but new examinations in 2001 indicated he was murdered. Stone committed suicide seven years after the disaster due to other financial troubles.

Also on this day: The Awakened One – In 1993, the Tian Tan Buddha was consecrated.
Ooh-La-La – In 1721, Lady Pompadour was born.
Saintly Departure – In 1170, Thomas Becket was assassinated.

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