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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Railroad Disaster and a Suicide...Or Was It Murder?

     Ashtabula, Ohio is a city located at the mouth of the Ashtabula River on Lake Erie across from the province of Ontario, Canada and 53 miles northeast of Cleveland. The name Ashtabula is derived from the language of the Indian Lenape tribe and it means always enough fish to be shared. 
     The city became an important destination on the Underground Railroad in the middle 19th century, as refugee slaves could take ships to Canada and freedom. Even in the free state of Ohio, they were at risk of being captured by slave catchers. 
     Beginning in the late 19th century, the city became a major coal port on Lake Erie at the mouth of the Ashtabula River northeast of Cleveland. Coal and iron were shipped here, the latter from the Mesabi Range in Minnesota. The city attracted immigrants from Finland, Sweden and Italy in the industrial period.
     The Ashtabula River railroad disaster (also called the Ashtabula Horror or the Ashtabula Bridge disaster or the Ashtabula Train Disaster) was a derailment caused by the failure of a bridge over the Ashtabula River. It and was the worst rail accident in the U.S. in the 19th century until the Great Train Wreck of 1918. 
     The coroner's report found that the bridge, designed by the railroad company president, had been improperly designed and inadequately inspected. As a result of the accident a hospital was built in the town and a federal system set up to formally investigate fatal railroad accidents. 
     The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway Train No. 5, known as The Pacific Express, left Erie, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of December 29, 1876 in deep snow. Two locomotives were hauling 11 railcars, including two express cars, two baggage cars, one smoking car, three coaches and three sleeping cars that carried 159 passengers. 
     At about 7:30 pm the train was crossing over the Ashtabula River about 1,000 feet from the railroad station when the bridge gave way beneath it. The lead locomotive made it across the bridge, while the second locomotive and the rest of the train plunged 76 feet into the water. 
     Some cars landed in an upright position. The wooden cars were set on fire by the heating stoves and lamps and soon small, localized fires became an inferno. Of 159 passengers and crew on board that night, 92 were killed or died later from injuries. Forty-eight of the fatalities were unrecognizable or consumed in the flames. Sixty-four people were injured. Among those killed were the gospel singer and hymn writer Philip Bliss and his wife.  
     The crash was heard in the town and the alarm was raised and by the time the townspeople reached the bridge, many of the injured passengers had made their way to the shore and the fire was burning fiercely. When the Ashtabula Fire Brigade arrived, the immediate instructions from railroad employees were to get the wounded out and to clear a pathway up the side of the ravine. After this no water was put onto the fire, even after reports that there were survivors still trapped in the bruning wreck. 
     At the time Ashtabula had no hospital so the survivors were led, carried and conveyed on sleds to hotels and private homes. Believe it or not, some rescuers and some of those who assisted the injured stole money and valuables from the survivors and dead to the tune of $1,500 (about $35,000 today). At least that’s how much those with a guilty conscience returned following an investigation by detectives and after the mayor had made a proclamation. 
     The following day an investigative coroner's jury, made up of six men, was appointed. Their investigation was to take 68 days. The Ashtabula bridge designer, Amasa Stone, who had been president of the railroad company that had built the bridge, had taken a well-established wooden bridge pattern (the Howe Truss) and adapted it as the pattern for an all-iron bridge. 
     Built in 1865 to span 165 feet, the engineer employed to draft and construct the bridge resigned it after saying the braces were too small. The Railroad's Engineer in Charge, Charles Collins, saw it as an "experiment" and objected but left matters to the company president who built it anyway using wrought iron in a new iron design. 
     The coroner's jury report strongly criticized the design of the bridge, as the failure of one part led to its collapse. It was found that the bridge had been badly maintained, poorly inspected, and not properly designed with respect to the truss members. The diagonals of the bridge were somewhat loosely fitted to the joints during assembly and the diagonals could carry only reduced loads and were not able to withstand a full load due to inadequate fastening. 
Howe Truss Bridge

     Some recent authors have attributed the accident to fatigue of the cast iron lug pieces which were used to anchor the wrought iron bars of the truss together. The entire load-carrying capacity rested upon the small cast-iron lugs at the truss joint angle block. Many were poorly made and needed shims of metal inserted to hold the bars in place. The quality of iron was also questioned. Cold weather may also have played a part in the metal fatigue. In any case, the exact reasons for the disaster have not been determined even to this day. 
     The report also noted that an inspection by a competent bridge engineer during the 11 years the railroad had used the bridge would have spotted these defects. 
     The jury also criticized the way the trains had been heated, and censured the Ashtabula Chief Fireman for failing to attempt to put out the fire. 
     The State Legislature of Ohio appointed engineers to look at the use of iron for the bridge, then a new material, and they concluded that the material had no inherent defect. 
     Days after testifying to the State Legislature Committee, the railroad's Engineer in Charge, Charles Collins was found dead in his bedroom of a gunshot wound to the head. 
     He had tendered his resignation to the Board of Directors the previous Monday, but it had been refused. Collins was believed to have committed suicide out of grief and feeling partially responsible for the accident.  But here’s something interesting...a police report at the time suggested the wound had not been self-inflicted and documents discovered in 2001 and an examination of Collins' skull suggest that he had indeed been murdered. 
     Ashtabula General Hospital was built because of the accident. About ten years later, steam heat was adopted by the railroad, replacing the wood and coal stoves in passenger cars. 
     In 1887 a federal system was set up to formally investigate fatal railroad accidents. 
     Twenty years later, in Ashtabula's Chestnut Grove Cemetery, a monument was erected to all those "unidentified" who died in the Ashtabula Railroad disaster. 

More on Charles Collins... 
     Charles Collins was the man for whom the Cleveland neighborhood of Collinwood was named. He was one of the best railroad construction engineers in the country and helped bring rail service to northern Ohio. 
     The history books say his death was suicide caused by guilt over the bridge failure, but in 1975, a man in Northeast Ohio discovered a box of papers his mother had bought at an auction and when he leafed through them, he found documents showing a pair of New York medical college doctors had done an independent autopsy and determined Collins had been shot in the head while sleeping. 
     There was never a followup on their report. So who killed Charles Collins? Someone connected to the railroad company fearful over what he might know, a victims family member, or did the New York medical team get it wrong? Nobody will ever know.

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