The 29th of December in 1876 was a windswept, snowy night in northeastern Ohio. A blizzard had pummeled the town of Ashtabula all day Friday, and almost two feet of snow had fallen with 50 mph wind gusts that produced waist-high drifts. It was a night to hunker down at home. But despite the weather, the trains were still running – although not on time.
The “Pacific Express” of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway was almost three hours late getting to Ashtabula from Erie, Pennsylvania. The train was slowly chugging through snowdrifts while the 159 passengers and crew stayed warm inside cars heated by coal-fired stoves and lit by oil lamps.
The 11-car train – pulled by two locomotives nicknamed “Socrates” and “Columbia” – was about 300 yards from the Ashtabula station at roughly 7:30 p.m. when it started over a bridge spanning the Ashtabula River. Socrates had just cleared the bridge when its engineer felt an odd sensation of heading uphill.
In an instant, disaster struck as the eleven-year-old iron bridge suddenly collapsed. The engineer gunned Socrates forward, but Columbia de-coupled, and the rest of the train plunged 70 feet into the river.
No one knows how many people were killed in the initial crash. But for the ones who survived the fall, the terror had only just begun. Many of the people inside were trapped in the snarled wreckage of train cars and bridge trusses, while others were too injured to get themselves out. Moments later, the situation got worse when the coal stoves and oil lamps set the varnished wood inside the cars ablaze, and fire quickly spread throughout the compartments.
Ultimately, 92 people were killed, although the exact count was difficult to determine in the smoldering wreckage. It was the worst train disaster in American history until the Great Train Wreck of 1918 in Nashville, when two trains collided head-on, killing 101.
In a day when newspapers provided the only coverage of such events, the Chicago Tribune gave a vivid account of the scene the next morning. “The proportions of the Ashtabula horror are now approximately known. Daylight, which gave an opportunity to find and enumerate the saved, reveals the fact that two out of every three passengers on the fated train are lost.
“The disaster was dramatically complete. No element of horror was wanting. First, the crash of the bridge, the agonizing moments of suspense as the seven laden cars plunged down their fearful leap to the icy riverbed; then the fire, which came to devour all that had been left alive by the crash; then the water, which gurgled up from under the broken ice and offered another form of death, and finally, the biting blast filled with snow, which froze and benumbed those who had escaped water and fire. It was an ideal tragedy.”
In the aftermath of this “ideal tragedy,” the Ohio legislature convened a joint committee to investigate the wreck. Three engineers were appointed to examine the bridge’s design, construction and the iron used to build it.
The committee took testimony from numerous people, including Mr. Amasa Stone, the president of the railroad and chief designer of the bridge, and Charles Collins, the construction engineer who inspected the bridge. Just hours after he had testified before the committee, Collins committed suicide.
The investigation led the committee to several conclusions. The iron used to build the bridge was not at fault; the bridge went down under an ordinary load by reason of defects in its original construction. The defects could have been discovered at any time after its erection “by careful and analytical inspection…and thus the sacrifice of life and property prevented.”
Although the committee also determined that snow on the bridge hastened its collapse, its members made clear the real culprit was the faulty design and construction. “The truth is,” the committee wrote, “the bridge was liable to go down at any time during the last ten or eleven years under the loads that might at any time be brought upon it in the ordinary course of the company’s business, and it is most remarkable that it did not sooner occur.”
As the committee noted, “the legislature has no power to punish, it can only, if possible, provide laws which shall render less frequent such frightful calamities as that at Ashtabula.” To that end the committee prepared a bill to regulate the construction and inspection of bridges in Ohio.
The law that was eventually enacted was meant to provide greater safety for “Public Travel over Bridges.” The new law set weight-bearing standards for bridges; it required that every bridge “shall be so constructed as to be capable of carrying on each track, in addition to its own weight, two locomotives coupled together, each weighing ninety-one thousand and two hundred pounds…”
The law also established what material should be used in construction and that all bridges over a certain length “shall be inspected once every month by some competent person appointed by and in the employment of the corporation owning or using the bridge.” The reports of those inspections had to be submitted to the commissioner of railroads and telegraphs. And the commissioner had the duty to stop the running of trains on all railroads where the company operating the railroads neglected to comply with the regulations.
Those early decades of rail travel gave rise to dozens of cases, many of which ended up here – at the Ohio Supreme Court. Those cases covered a range of issues, from cattle on the tracks to accidents causing death and bodily harm. Through the years, the case law established here – combined with legislation and better engineering techniques – helped to improve the safety of rail travel in Ohio.
If silver linings can be found in the darkest clouds, the Ashtabula train wreck provided a leap forward in the standards of bridge design, construction and safety. That is, of course, of little solace to the poor souls who perished on that cold December night in 1876.
Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.