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December 29, 1876: The Ashtabula Horror

Posted December 29, 2006 11:13 AM by Steve Melito
Pathfinder Tags: December 29

Today is the anniversary of the "Ashtabula Horror", an engineering failure that claimed the lives of 92 passengers in one of America's worst railroad accidents.

On the afternoon of December 29, 1876, Train No. 5 of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway left Erie, Pennsylvania in the aftermath of a blinding snowstorm. Drawn by two heavy engines, the Pacific Express pulled three passenger coaches, three sleeping coaches, two baggage cars, two express cars, and one drawing-room coach.

Slowed by piles of snow along the track, the train was buffeted by 40-mile per hour winds as the sun set and the long winter night began. At 7:28 PM, Train No. 5 approached the station at Ashtabula, Ohio – more than two hours behind schedule. Onboard, many of the train's 156 passengers warmed themselves by kerosene stoves while talking or playing cards.

Just 100 yards from the Ashtabula station, passenger Marian Shepard heard what she later described as "a sharp, ringing sound". Moments later, the wrought-iron Ashtabula River Railroad Bridge collapsed, plunging the 11-car train into the icy waters below. Fires aboard the passenger cars extinguished hopes for survival.

Stone's Iron Bridge

The Ashtabula River Railroad Bridge was designed by Amasa Stone, a Massachusetts-born architect who became a builder of mills and railroads across Ohio. Stone's wrought iron deck-truss was tough and slow to rust, mixed with strands of slag that gave the metal a grainy, wood-like appearance. Pillars made of mortar and stone supported the ends of the double-truss while massive semi-arches bridged the gap between the railway and the banks along the sides of the Ashtabula River.

Stone's iron bridge was the first such structure to use the Howe truss, an architectural design in which supports at each end are inclined toward the center of span and held in place by compression. Vertical members are held in place by tension and supported with counterbraces. For almost 11 years, trains rumbled across the Ashtabula River Railroad Bridge without incident. Charles Collins, the chief engineer for the Lakeshore and Michigan Southern Railway, had objected to Stone's use of such a long span, but failed to discover any defects during subsequent inspections.

Inquest and Aftermath

On Saturday, December 30, 1876, the citizens of Ashtabula, Ohio selected six men to investigate the deaths of the previous day. Led by Edward W. Richards, Ashtabula's coroner and justice of the peace, the members of this panel concluded that "the fall of the bridge was the result of defects and errors" in both design and construction. Because "the members of each truss were, instead of being fastened together, rested one upon the other", the failure of one vertical support toppled the rest.

The panel also concluded that the iron bridge had "insufficient lugs or flanges to keep the ends of the main and counter braces from slipping out of place" and used improper "shimming" to compensate for supports of different length. In addition, builders has used "thick beams where the plan required thin ones, and thin ones where it required thick ones." Blame was also assigned to those "who were first to arrive at the scene of the disaster", but were "so overwhelmed" that they failed to fight the fires which claimed additional victims. Final responsibility, however, rested squarely with the "railway company, which, by its chief executive officer, planned and erected this bridge."

A special committee appointed by the Ohio legislature supported the work of the Ashtabula coroner's jury, concluding that "the bridge was liable to have gone down at any time in the last eleven years, and it is remarkable that it did not". Charles Collins, the railroad's chief engineer, committed suicide shortly after giving testimony to the committee. Several years later, Amasa Stone also took his own life.

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#1

Re: December 29, 1876: The Ashtabula Horror

12/29/2006 1:57 PM

Thanks for the link to this blog--I came in from Railroad.net. I had forgotten that those two men both took their own lives after the incident. I believe that I've seen pictures online of the current bridge at this location.

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Re: December 29, 1876: The Ashtabula Horror

12/29/2006 2:05 PM

You're welcome, Guest! I hope you'll join us here at CR4 again. You may find the stories about The First Underground Freight Tunnel and Grenville Dodge to be of interest, too.

Moose

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Anonymous Poster
#3

Re: December 29, 1876: The Ashtabula Horror

01/02/2007 4:20 AM

Check out also the Tay Bridge disaster on 24th December 1879, an equivalent, and contemporary, railway accident.

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