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Ashtabula Bridge Disaster

from the Memoirs of Philip P. Bliss, Chapter 24

The Disaster at Ashtabula — The Newspaper Accounts — The Story of an Eye-witness — Mr. Bliss Goes Back to Save His Wife and Is Burned to Death

The railroad train on which Mr. and Mrs. Bliss rode to their death left Buffalo, New York, on Friday afternoon, December 29, 1876. At eight o'clock that evening, while approaching Ashtabula station, and crossing a ravine, the bridge gave way, and the train, with its precious freight of human lives, was precipitated to the bottom. Fresh as is the memory of this horror in the minds of all, the newspaper accounts given at the time will be read now with renewed interest, and fittingly form a part of the record made in these pages.

Dispatch to the Chicago Tribune
Ashtabula, Ohio, December 30, 1876

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. Of the 160 passengers who the maimed conductor reports as having been on board, but fifty-nine can be found or accounted for. The remaining 100, burned to ashes or shapeless lumps of charred flesh, lie under the ruins of the bridge and train.

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 river-bed; 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.

The scene of the accident was the valley of the creek which, flowing down past the eastern margin of Ashtabula village, passes under the railway three or four hundred yards east of the station. Here for many years after the Lake Shore road was built, there was a long wooden trestle-work, but as the road was improved, this was superseded about ten years ago with an iron Howe truss, built at the Cleveland shops, and resting at either end upon high stone piers, flanked by heavy earthen embankments. The iron structure was a single span of 159 feet, crossed by a double track seventy feet above the water, which at that point is now from three to six feet deep, and covered with eight inches of ice. The descent into the valley on either side is precipitous, and, as the hills and slopes are piled with heavy drifts of snow, there was no little difficulty in reaching the wreck after the disaster became known.

The disaster occurred shortly before eight o'clock. It was the wildest winter night of the year. Three hours behind its time, the Pacific Express, which had left New York the night before, struggled along through the drifts and the blinding storm. The eleven cars were a heavy burden to the two engines, and when the leading locomotive broke through the drifts beyond the ravine, and rolled on across the bridge, the train was moving at less than ten miles an hour. The head lamp threw but a short and dim flash of light in the front, so thick was the air with the driving snow. The train crept across the bridge, the leading engine had reached solid ground beyond, and its driver had just given it steam, when something in the undergearing of the bridge snapped. For an instant, there was a confused crackling of beams and girders, ending with a tremendous crash, as the whole train but the leading engine broke through the framework, and fell in a heap of crushed and splintered ruins at the bottom. Notwithstanding the wind and storm, the crash was heard by people within-doors half a mile away. For a moment there was silence, a stunned sensation among the survivors, who in all stages of mutilation lay piled among the dying and dead. Then arose the cries of the maimed and suffering; the few who remained unhurt hastened to escape from the shattered cars. They crawled out of windows into freezing water waist-deep. Men, women and children, with limbs bruised and broken, pinched between timbers and transfixed by jagged splinters, begged with their last breath for aid that no human power could give.

Five minutes after the train fell, the fire broke out in the cars piled against the abutments at either end. A moment later, flames broke from the smoking-car and first coach piled across each other near the middle of the stream. In less than ten minutes after the catastrophe, every car in the wreck was on fire, and the flames, fed by the dry varnished work and fanned by the icy gale, licked up the ruins as though they had been tinder. Destruction was so swift that mercy was baffled. Men who, in the bewilderment of the shock, sprang out and reached to solid ice, went back after wives and children and found them suffocating and roasting in the flames. The neighboring residents, startled by the crash, were lighted to the scene by the conflagration, which made even their prompt assistance too late. By midnight, the cremation was complete. The storm had subsided, but the wind still blew fiercely, and the cold was more intense. When morning came, all that remained of the Pacific Express was a winrow of car wheels, axles, brake-irons, truck-frames and twisted rails lying in a black pool at the bottom of the gorge. The wood had burned completely away, and the ruins were covered with white ashes. Here and there a mass of charred, smoldering substance sent up a little cloud of sickening vapor, which told that it was human flesh slowly yielding to the corrosion of the fires. On the crest of the western abutment, half buried in the snow, stood the rescued locomotive, all that remained of the fated train. As the bridge fell, its driver had given it a quick head of steam, which tore the drawhead from its tender, and the liberated engine shot forward and buried itself in the snow. The other locomotive, drawn backward by the falling train, tumbled over the pier and fell bottom upward on the express car next behind. The engineer, Folsom, escaped with a broken leg; how, he cannot tell, nor can anyone else imagine.

There is no death-list to report. There can be none until the list of the missing ones who traveled by the Lake Shore Road on Friday is made up. There are no remains that can ever be identified. The three charred, shapeless lumps recovered up to noon to-day are beyond all hope of recognition. Old or young, male or female, black or white, no man can tell. They are alike in the crucible of death. For the rest, there are piles of white ashes in which glisten the crumbling particles of calcined bones; in other places masses of black, charred debris, half under water, which may contain fragments of bodies, but nothing of human semblance. It is thought that there may be a few corpses under the ice, as there were women and children who sprang into the water and sank, but none have been thus far recovered.

Dispatch to Cleveland Leader

The haggard dawn, which drove the darkness out of this valley of the shadow of death, seldom saw a ghastlier sight than was revealed with the coming of the morning. On either side of the ravine frowned the dark and bare arches from which the treacherous timbers had fallen, while at their base the great heaps of ruins covered the one hundred men, women and children who had so suddenly been called to their death. The three charred bodies lay where they had been placed in the hurry and confusion of the night. Piles of iron lay on the thick ice, or bedded in the shallow water of the stream. The fires smouldered in great heaps, where many of the hapless victims had been all consumed, while men went about in wild excitement, seeking some trace of a lost one among the wounded or dead.

The list of saved and wounded having already been sent, the sad task remains of discovering who may be among the dead. The latter task will be the most difficult of all, until the continued absence of here and there a friend will allow of but one explanation - that he was among those who took this fatal leap.

All the witnesses so far agree to the main facts of the accident. It was about 8 o'clock, and the train was moving along at a moderate rate of speed, the Ashtabula station being just this side of the ravine. Suddenly, and without warning, the train plunged into the abyss, the forward locomotive alone getting across in safety. Almost instantly, the lamps and stoves set fire to the cars, and many who were doubtlessly only stunned, and who might otherwise have been saved, fell victims to the fury of the flames.

On the arrival of the Cleveland train, the surgeon of the road organized his corps of assistants, and made a tour of the various hotels, where the wounded were attended to, such help being given to each as was possible. The people of Ashtabula lent a willing hand, and all that human skill and money could do to save life or ease pain was done. The train which came from Cleveland for the purpose was immediately backed into position, and long before daylight the least wounded were being prepared for transportation to Cleveland, to be sent to hospitals or their homes.

The scenes among the wounded were as suggestive almost as the wreck in the valley. The two hotels nearest the station contained a majority of these, as they were scattered about on temporary beds on the floors of the dining-rooms, parlors and offices. In one place, a man with a broken leg would be under the hands of a surgeon, who rapidly and skillfully went at his work. In another, a man covered with bruises and spotted over with pieces of plaster, would look as though he had been snowed upon, except when the dark lines of blood across his face or limb told a different story. In some other corner, a poor woman moaned from the pain which she could not conceal, while over all there brooded that hushed feeling of awe which always accompanies calamities of this character.

Towards morning, the cold increased and the wind blew a fearful gale which, with the snow, that had drifted waist-deep at points along the line made all work extremely difficult.

At 6 o'clock, the beds in the sleeping-car of the special train were made up and such of the wounded as could be moved were transferred there.


The story of most painful interest to us - to all who will read this book, and all who knew and loved P.P. Bliss and his wife - is that told by Mr. J. E. Burchell, partner of Mr. B. F. Jacobs, of Chicago, who was on the ill-fated train. We give his account in full:

There were eleven cars on the train that left Buffalo at two o'clock Friday afternoon. There were two engines, three baggage, one smoker, two coaches, three sleepers and one parlor car. I should judge there were 250 passengers. We pulled out of Buffalo in a blinding snow-storm, an hour late, and ran at the rate of fifteen miles an hour until about an hour, or maybe only half an hour, before the accident, when she slacked up to about ten miles an hour. The second engine was taken on at about Dunkirk. Just before reaching the bridge, the snow was very heavy, and at that station near by, the name of which I have forgotten, there was every danger of being snowed in. We had lost an hour and a half from Buffalo to the bridge.

Before reaching the bridge, I went through the train and noticed that the coaches and the smoker were filled. The smoker did not come in its regular order. There were two passenger coaches ahead of it. Next behind the smoker was the parlor car, in which Mr. Bliss and his family were, and I noticed it was one-third full. I was in the car behind the parlor, and my car was filled. Behind that were the three sleepers, which were also nearly filled.

We neared the bridge at about 7:45, though due at Ashtabula at 5:15. East of the bridge, the country is rolling, and beyond the creek it grows more level. We ran on the structure at a rate of about ten miles an hour, and the whole train was on the bridge when it gave way. The bridge is about two hundred feet long, and only the first engine had passed over when the crash came, the weight of the falling cars nearly pulling back the locomotive that had passed over.

The first thing I heard was a cracking in the front part of the car, and then the same cracking in the rear. Then came another cracking in the front louder than the first, and then came a sickening oscillation and a sudden sinking, and I was thrown stunned from my seat. I heard the cracking, and splintering and smashing around me. The iron work bent and twisted like snakes, and everything took horrid shapes. I heard a lady scream in anguish, "Oh! help me!" Then I heard the cry of fire. Some one broke a window and I pushed out the lady who had screamed. I think her name was Mrs. Bingham.

The train lay in the valley in the water, our car a little on its side, both ends broken in. The rest of the train lay in every direction, some on end, some on the side, crushed and broken, a terrible but picturesque sight. Below were the water and broken ice; seventy feet above was the broken bridge.

Mrs. Bingham sank down in the snow, and I went back after my coat. Securing that, I went to her and carried her, with a dozen stumbles and falls, up the bank. The snow in the valley was nearly to my waist, and I could only move with difficulty. The wreck was then on fire. The wind was blowing from the east and whirling blinding masses of snow over the terrible ruin.

The crackling of the flames, the whistling wind, the screaming of the hurt, made a pandemonium of that little valley, and the water of the freezing creek was red with blood or black with the flying cinders. I did not then know that any lives had been lost. All had escaped alive, though all were bruised or injured. The fire stole swiftly along the wreck, and in a few moments the cars were all in flames. The ruins covered the whole space between the two piers, the cars jammed in or locked together. One engine lay in the creek, smashed to pieces, the ruins breathing steam and fire.

I carried Mrs. Bingham to the only house near by, and which appeared to be an engine-house. I was completely exhausted, and remained there forty-five minutes, when the injured began to arrive. I think there were fifty-two brought in alive, but one or two died after their removal to the town, where they were subsequently taken. The town was about a quarter of a mile distant.

I did not go back to the wreck, but from the engine-house door I could see into the ravine, and the fearful scene it presented. The sight was sickening. The whole wreck was then on fire, and from out the frozen valley came great bursts of flame. There were crowds of men there, but the fire beat them back, and they could do nothing. The wounded were lying around in the snow, or were laid on stretchers or taken on the backs of men and carried up the bluff. The spectacle was frightful, but those who had gone to assist worked steadily and well in spite of the intense heat. They carried away all who could be rescued, and then waited mournfully for the flames to subside, so that bodies might be taken out. As fast as the injured were secured, they were taken to the hotel. That was some time before anything could be done, for in thirty minutes after the fall it was impossible to get near it for the fire. I think it likely that a great many were buried under the cars, and lost in that way.

The hotel was about a quarter of a mile from the creek, and as the long line of stretchers and stout men bore the sufferers along, the stormy air was filled with moanings of anguish. At the hotel, the wounded were kindly cared for. Physicians and surgeons were early on hand, and every effort was made to relieve the sufferers. One lady, whose foot had been crushed, was carried shrieking in labor pains to the little hotel, and during the night she gave birth to a child.

From the top of the bluff to the water's edge it is, I should think, from seventy to eighty feet, and along that bluff there ranged lines of excited men looking down on the burning, helpless agony below. It was a heart-rending scene. The mangled, bleeding bodies writhed in the terrible tortures around them. Some died with prayer and some with shriekings of woe on their lips. Some were caught in the iron and woodwork, and held while the flames crept upon them and burned them in the very sight of cool, rippling water. As they died, they fixed their bloodshot eyes longingly upon the snow that beat pitilessly down, and lay white and beautiful on their smoke-blackened faces. The fire crept steadily on through the snow flakes, leaping from one mass of ruins to another, licking up the blood as it passed along, and crushing out human lives as remorselessly as it curled around the stubborn woodwork.

When the train fell, Mr. Bliss succeeded in crawling through a window, supposing he could pull his wife and children after him. But they were jammed fast and every effort of his was unavailing. The car was all jammed up, and the lady and her children were caught in the ironwork of the seats. Finding that he could not save them, he staid there with them and died. [the Bliss children were not on the train - editor]

Most all the passengers who escaped did so by way of the windows. There was no egress at the doors, for the stoves were there. One lady was pulled from a window, and almost every stitch of clothing stripped from her, and when they were taking her out the rescuing party could hear the screams of women and children for aid, but could render them no assistance.

Those who came from the wreck said they could see into the cars and could see the charred trunks of those who had been literally burned to death. They described them as wholly unrecognizable beyond identification, and presenting the most ghastly scene they had ever looked on. Some of the unfortunates were burned literally to ashes, and in some cases only calcined bones were left to tell that human beings had ever been there.

Of the fifty-two taken from the wreck, all were more or less injured, and about forty of them dangerously, if not fatally. I don't remember any names. I was badly shaken up and bruised, and I think there was only one man who was as little hurt as I was.

There was a fire-engine there, but there was no hose. I think the fire lasted about an hour, and by that time, all the cars were burned. I don't think anyone was taken out alive after the fire. I am fearful that all who were not saved before the flames got headway perished in the general conflagration.

I should say there were at the least reckoning one hundred and fifty persons killed outright or burned to death, and this in spite of the fact that some of the officers claim that there were only one hundred and sixty-five on the train.

I don't know the name of a human being among the killed, except Mr. Bliss and his family, and I don't know the names of any of the injured. All along the road coming from the scene are anxious men, fearful that friends or relatives were on the train and killed or injured. Perhaps some of them may yet hear of deplorable losses, for the railroad officials admit that there were over one hundred killed.

Fortunately, the dear children of Mr. and Mrs. Bliss had been left at Rome, and they were safe. The father and mother "went before" them into the valley of the shadow of death.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Memoirs of Philip P. Bliss edited by D.W. Whittle... New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1877. pp. [290]-296.

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