The Ashtabula Train Disaster of 1876
Darrell E. Hamilton
(Chapters 1-3 of 15)
A little over 125 years ago, on a cold, bitter, stormy night in Ash-tabula, a 40-mile-an-hour gale was blowing. There were already three feet of snow on the ground with the temperature hovering around 10 degrees below zero. In many places, the strong wind had thrown huge drifts of snow six feet or higher.
The Village of Ashtabula contained nearly 3,500 residents. Running east and west through the Village of Ashtabula was the Lake Shore Railway. The Village at the time contained several small places of business, three saloons and three hotels. One of the hotels, the American House, still stands at the corner of Main Ave. and 46th St.
At the Gulf, described by some as the "Deep Gorge" at the time, an experimental bridge was built. It was built in the year 1865. The bridge was built on an arched viaduct. From the bottom of the gorge, two lofty pillars of stone seventy-six feet high were built. Flanking these pillars were smaller abutments of an older bridge left standing but not used since the new experimental bridge was opened up for train traffic. The span of the bridge across the Gulf, from abutment to abutment was the unusual length of 150 feet.
Most of the people of Ashtabula at the time thought the bridge was a scary sight. The bridge was not built as an arch nor was it supported by abutments below. It was a web of iron netted, braced and bolted. The bridge was built of wrought iron with long iron braces.
There was trouble building the bridge from the beginning to the end. The engineer who made the drafts for the bridge noted that braces, smaller than intended, were used. The engineer differ-ed so much with the president of the railroad at the time over the construction of the bridge, resigned his position with the railroad. However, the bridge was built anyway.
Never the less, the bridge was still standing 11 years later until the night of December 29, 1876.
The winter had already produced three previous heavy snow falls. The snow had falle n all day l ong and was still falling with blinding fury and below zero temperatures. Below, in the Gulf, there was no road to the bottom of the bridge, only steep steps that had disappeared in the snow.
Earlier in the day, a train had passed over the bridge. The engineer had noticed a "rumble", but because of the blinding snow storm and wind, paid little attention to it.
It was a Friday night and most of the residents of Ashtabula were inside snuggled up to their warm fireplaces. No one was away from their homes unless they had to be. One of those residents was Norris Simons, ticket agent for the railroad. He was on duty that night at the depot which was located where the present depot stands now on West 32nd Street. Norris Simons was also my wife's great-great-great-uncle.
The No. 5, "Pacific Express", had left New York the night before and was due in Erie at little after noon but it was two and a half hours late. It should have reached Ashtabula by 5:15 in the even-ing.
Another resident out that night was Edward W. Lockwood. He lived on the east side at that time and had used the bridge to get home. He had crossed the bridge many times before and knew he wouldn't get caught on the tracks because he could always hear the train's whistle blowing. This night was to be a different story for Edward. The blinding snow storm and the howling winds, he found it difficult navigate across the bridge much less to hear the train that was approaching. Edward had just gotten across when he when saw the headlight of the approaching train. He hurriedly jumped from the tracks into a snow drift as Number 5 went by. The engineer saw Lockwood jump from the tracks and looked down on him.. That was about 7:30 p. m.
The Ashtabula Train Disaster 0f 1876 - Chapter 2
Darrell E. Hamilton
The train that had started from New York the night before, had divided at Albany; a portion of it was plunging through the snow drifts of the mountains of Vermont while the other portion was struggling amid the snow drifts near the banks of Lake Erie. Both trains were destined to be wrecked except that the Chicago bound train would take with it, countless lives.
Four engines had been used to push the train from the station at Erie. Two strong locomotives were straining to push forward and overcome the deep snow.
From the many accounts of the train wreck that I have read, some have stated that the train was filled to capacity while others state that there were many seats vacate. I am inclined to believe the latter as the snow storm would have kept many people home and that there had already been three harsh snow storms during the month of December. Also the fact that the train had a capacity at that time of 400 or more. There were less than 200 hundred pas-sengers and nineteen employees on board at the time but the exact number of passengers was never known. The official count at the time was 197 passengers by the railroad officials, but the number of tickets that the conductor had in his possession may have num-bered as many as 300. Not counted in the official count were a few who had railroad passes and at least one black man who was rid-ing in the baggage car.
Inside the cars were people from all walks of life. There were business men, clergymen, physicians, professional men, young men and women, both black and white, and even children. Because of the time of the year and the weather, there were not as many child-ren on board as could have been.
The train consisted of two locomotives; two express cars; two baggage cars; two day passenger coaches; a smoking car; a draw-ing room car and three sleeper cars. It was a beautiful train and well known for its elegance and beauty.
Right before the disaster, ladies in the sleeping coaches were preparing to retire: some had already laid down in their berths. Gentlemen were quietly dozing in their seats while others were taking their last smoke before settling themselves in for the night. Some of the gentlemen were engaged with card playing. Most of the children were already in their berths; some were already fast asleep dreaming of their Christmas visit with their grandparents or other relatives.
Some of the passengers were headed clear across the continent to California while a few were to get off the train in Ashtabula. With the storm raging and the wind blowing, all felt a sense of security inside the train.
The train had begun to slow down on approaching the bridge as the depot was a short distance on the other side of the bridge. The second engine had already started to apply its breaks.
All of a sudden, the sound of the wheels rolling on the tracks stopped. The bell rope snapped and the lights were extinguished. In an instant, the passengers could feel themselves falling. An aw-ful silence seized the passengers; each one sat breathless, bracing and seizing the seats before them. Not a word was spoken, only deep breaths taken.
At the same time, the engineer of the first engine, Dan McGuire, suddenly heard a sharp crack. He then looked back and saw the locomotive, "Columbia", start to sink. With great presence of mind
he opened the throttle valve all the way to drive his engine for-ward. With his quick thinking, the first engine, the "Socrates" reached the abutment. The second engine, "the Columbia", was drawn forward and almost made it to the abutment. It struck the abutment, and for an instance clung to the first engine by the coupling rod. As soon as the coupling rod broke, the engine fell into the deep, dark gorge below.
The Ashtabula Train Disaster of 1876 - Chapter 3
Darrell E. Hamilton
The bridge broke in the center. With the engine, "Columbia" hanging on to the first engine, the rest of the train plunged into the Gulf. Even though the Columbia held on for only a moment, it gave time for the other cars to plunge below it. The first car to crash was the express car that was behind the second locomotive. It also hit the abutment and fell to the bottom. Unfortunately for any survivors in the express car, the locomotive fell on top of it instantly killing any survivors. The locomotive completely revers-ed with its headlights toward the train that it was pulling. Some of the other cars then crashed onto the other cars that were in front of them. Some of the cars flew through the air and landed as much as 80 feet away from the sides of the bridge.
The majority of the passengers killed, were killed instanta-neously. Those were the "lucky"ones that died that day.
Some of the survivors were able to craw through broken windows and debris sometimes causing worse injury to themselves than they received in the fall. However, making a hole in a window with a fist or crawling through a broken roof while tearing their flesh to escape was better than what awaited for the survivors still inside.
It was a cold, bitter and dark night. Some of the passengers that did escape, could not see where they were going. They had to feel their way to safety. Some would fall through the ice and drown. This was probably a better way to die than what awaited the surviving passengers still trapped inside the cars.
The stoves that were used to heat the cars, were by govern-ment regulations at the time, to be self-extinguishing. The stoves that were on the cars that fateful night were not. The railroad would be found later at fault for this violation.
Fires immediately broke out. Once the fire broke the through wreckage of the train. The valley began to light up.
At the depot, many, mostly railroad employees, went outside on hearing the trains whistle. Knowing the train was two hours late made everyone anxious. Standing on the platform, they saw
the first locomotive's light approaching then they saw the rest of the train fall behind it. Many who lived near the depot could hear the sounds of cars falling in quick succession on top of the other.
The first people to arrive at the crash were the railroad em-ployees and a salon keeper at one of the nearby hotels. Most of them slid down into the gulf to reach the wreck.
Upon arriving at the bottom, they were appalled at the de-struction. They immediately began to chop through the wreckage with an ax to free the survivors and help them up the banks.
In the meantime, flames began to rise. It was only a glimmer-ing light at first. It probably could have been put out by a few buckets of water in the beginning. The flames began at each end of the wreck and then began to spread. The men were concentrating on getting the trapped people out of the wreckage.
In the mean time, the fire department was under the control of a fire chief that wasn't fit for the job. He was slow in both mind and body. He was also an alcoholic. Some had sought his removal but were unsuccessful. It was unfortunate that the control of the fire department was in such incompetent hands.
When the firemen did reach the scene with the hoses and steamer, no orders were given to fight the fire. The fire chief only was heard to say that there was no use in throwing water on the flames. The railroad had a policy that when a train wrecked, they were supposed to let the train burn. The policy never gave any consideration if there was people on board. However , the fire chief could have taken control and ordered the fire to be put out. He was confused and unable to take control. Even as the fireman laid out the hose to the pumper, he still never gave the orders to put out the fire. A hand pumper and a steam pumper stood by idol while the fire grew. Someone ran up from the wreck begging, " For God's sake, water should be thrown." Still no orders were given even as people below called out for buckets.
Finally buckets were procured and water was being thrown on the flames. However, their efforts were in vain as the flames were now out of control.
Many people were still trapped and were unable to be freed. The fire was getting so intense, that the trapped could not be freed. One man was trapped as the locomotive lie on top of him burned to death as the men tried to lift the locomotive off his legs. Another lady screamed as her dress caught fire. Unable to reach her, she burned as most of her flesh cooked off her bones.
A father was able to get his children to safety and then went back for his wife, she was trapped and unable to free her. She could hear the other passengers screaming as they burned to death. She begged her husband to slit her throat before the flames over took her. He was however able to obtain help and she was re-united with her children.
The flames became so intense that buckets of water became useless. Screams of agony could be heard by the nearby residents as the trapped survivors inside the cars literally roasted.