Ohio’s Worst Train Disaster

The time was 7:28 PM on December 29, 1876 and the place was Ashtabula, Ohio, located on the shore of Lake Erie and some 50 miles due north of Youngstown, Ohio. Train No. 5 of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad had left Buffalo, New York, on its way to Chicago that snowy afternoon. Due to the blizzard conditions a second locomotive was added at Dunkirk, New York. As the train plowed through the snow and was crossing a 150 foot long bridge over the Ashtabula River the passengers heard a terrible cracking sound. In just seconds, the bridge trusses fractured causing the train to plunged 70 feet onto the ice covered river below

The lead locomotive, The "Socrates" made it across the bridge, while the second locomotive, The "Columbia" and 11 railcars including two express cars, two baggage cars, one smoking car, two passenger cars and three sleeping cars and a caboose fell into the ravine below among the twisted and broken iron of the bridge.

The wooden cars were set aflame by kerosene-heating stoves and kerosene burning lamps. Some cars landed in an upright position and within a few minutes small localized fires became an inferno. The fire then caused the ice on the river to melt and sent the wreckage even further into the freezing water. The rescue attempt was feeble at best because of the ill-preparedness of the nearby station to respond to emergencies. Of 159 passengers and crew onboard that night, 64 people were injured and 92 were killed or died later from injuries sustained in the crash. Most did not die in the fall itself, but were literally burned alive while trapped in the crushed cars (48 of the fatalities were unrecognizable due to the flames.)

The bridge, designed jointly by Charles Collins, Engineer, and Amasa Stone, Chief Architect and Designer, was the first Howe-type wrought iron truss bridge built. Collins was reluctant to go through with building the bridge calling it "too experimental." But he bowed to pressure from the railroad to approve construction. After testifying in the investigation of the bridge collapse, Collins went home and is believed to have committed suicide. His suicide was suspicious in nature but authorities never followed through with an investigation of the crime due to his involvement in the train disaster. Seven years later Amasa Stone also committed suicide. This bridge failure forced railroads to improve their bridge designs and to include more testing and inspection.

In Ashtabula’s Chestnut Grove Cemetery is a monument marking the mass grave of the unidentified victims of Ohio’s worst train disaster. Nearby is bridge engineer Charles Collins’s crypt. Many believe that these graves are haunted by the spirits of the unknown dead. Amasa Stone’s grave is in the Lakeview Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio.

Philip Paul Bliss (18381876) was an American writer of gospel hymns. He wrote many well-known hymns, including Almost Persuaded, Hallelujah, What a Saviour!, Let the Lower Lights Be Burning, Wonderful Words of Life, and the tune It Is Well with My Soul. In 1869, Bliss formed an association with Dwight L. Moody. Moody and others urged Bliss to become a missionary singer. In 1874 Bliss decided that he was called to the task of “winning souls”. He then became a full-time evangelist. Bliss made significant amounts of money from royalties and gave them to charity and to support his evangelical endeavors. Mr. Bliss and his wife were on Train No. 5 when it plunged into the Ashtabula River that cold December night and their bodies were never identified. His cenotaph is located in Rome, Pennsylvania, where he and his wife were born.