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 about 1,000 feet (300 m) from the railroad station at Ashtabula, in far northeastern Ohio. On December 29, 1876, at about 7:30 pm, two locomotives hauling 11 railcars of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway carrying 159 passengers plunged into the river in deep snow when the bridge gave way beneath them. The wooden cars were set alight by their heating stoves, but no attempt was made to extinguish the fire. The accident killed 92 people, including the gospel singer and hymn-writer Philip Bliss and his wife, and was the worst rail accident in the U.S. 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, The Pacific Express, left Erie, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of December 29, 1876 in deep snow. Two locomotives, "Socrates" and "Columbia", 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 (300 m) from the railroad station at Ashtabula, Ohio 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 (23 m) into the water. Some cars landed in an upright position. The wooden cars were set alight 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; they included the gospel singer and hymn-writer Philip Bliss and his wife. Forty-eight of the fatalities were unrecognizable or consumed in the flames. Sixty-four people were injured.
The crash was heard in the town and the alarm was raised. By the time the townspeople reached the bridge the wounded 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 of survivors still trapped in the wreck.
The survivors were led, carried and conveyed on sleds to hotels and private houses in the town, there being no hospital. However, people assisting also stole money and valuables from the survivors and dead, $1,500 (about 34,000 dollars today) being returned following investigation by detectives and after the mayor had made a proclamation. The dead were moved the following morning. The railroad bridge was re-built with temporary underpinning.
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 (50 m), the engineer employed to draft and construct it resigned after saying the braces were too small. The Railroad's Engineer in Charge, Charles Collins, saw it as an "experiment", leaving matters to the president. The coroner's jury report strongly criticized the design of the bridge, as the failure of one part led to its collapse. Bridge members, instead of being fastened, rested on each other. 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, Collins was found dead in his bedroom of a gunshot wound to the head. Having tendered his resignation to the Board of Directors the previous Monday, and been refused, Collins was believed to have committed suicide out of grief and feeling partially responsible for the tragic accident. However, 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.
Amasa Stone committed suicide seven years later after experiencing financial difficulties with some foundries he had interests in, suffering from severe ulcers that kept him from sleeping and scorn from the public over the disaster.
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. Many were poorly made, and needed shims of metal inserted to hold the bars in place.
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.