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THE ASHTABULA DISASTER.
Harper's Weekly—January 20, 1877

OUR illustration shows the scene of the terrible railroad accident at Ashtabula Creek on the night of December 29, 1876. The train, consisting of eleven cars drawn by two engines, reached the bridge over Ashtabula Creek about eight o'clock, and was moving at a low rate of speed. The engines had crossed in safety, when the bridge, without warning, gave way, and the whole train, with the exception of the leading engine, the couplings of which broke, was precipitated into the ravine, a distance of seventy-five feet. The banks are steep, and the furious snow-storm that had been raging for several hours rendered it difficult for those who hastened to the scene of the disaster to reach the wreck. To add to the horror of the situation, the cars took fire from the stoves, and many passengers who were not killed outright by the fall were burned to death. Imprisoned by heavy fragments of the broken cars, or unable to move on account of injuries, men, women, and children met death in this agonizing form. Some, it is supposed, were drowned.

Help arrived early from Ashtabula village, but nothing could then be done to save life, except to remove the wounded, who had already been taken from the cars, to places where they could have surgical attention. The heat from the burning wreck was intense, and in the confusion of the moment the means which might have been used to extinguish the flames were not thought of until too late. At the water-works, within 150 yards of the burning cars, lay 500 feet of hose, the coupling of which exactly fitted a plug within pistol-shot of the fire, the plug being connected with a powerful pumping apparatus, and there being sixty pounds of steam in the pump boiler. The hose could have been pouring a stream on the fire within five minutes but for somebody's fault or stupidity.

A survivor of the disaster, Mr. BURCHELL, of Chicago, describes the scene in vivid colors: "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 every thing took horrid shapes. I heard a lady scream in anguish, I Oh! help me!' Then I heard the cry of fire. Some one broke a window, and I pushed the lady out who had screamed. I think her name was Miss 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. 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.

The number of persons killed can not be accurately stated, as it is not known exactly how many there were on the train, and it is supposed that some bodies were entirely consumed in the flames. The official list of the killed and those who have died of their injuries, gives the number as fifty-five, but it is supposed to be somewhat higher.

On this page we give a diagram showing the construction of the bridge, which was of iron. It was built about eleven years ago, and was supposed to be a structure of great strength. It had been, tested with the weight of six locomotives; heavy trains had crossed on both its tracks at the same time; it was believed to be well constructed of the best materials. Yet suddenly it fell under a weight far below its tested strength. No wonder that the travelling public anxiously inquire, "What was the cause?" Was it improperly constructed? Was the iron of inferior quality? After eleven years of service, had it suddenly lost its strength? Or had a gradual weakness grown upon it unperceived? Might that weakness have been discovered by frequent and proper examination? Or was the breakage the sudden effect of intense cold? If so, why had it not happened before in yet more severe weather? Is there no method of making iron bridges of assured safety? And who is responsible (so far as human responsibility goes) for such an accident—the engineer who designed the bridge, or the contractor, or the builders, or the railroad corporation? Was the bridge, when made, the best of its kind, or the cheapest of its kind? Was the contract for building "let to the lowest bidder," or given to the most honest, thorough workmen? These and a hundred similar queries arise in every thoughtful mind, and an anxious community desire information and assurance of safety. The majority of people can not, of course, understand the detailed construction of bridges, but they do desire confidence in engineers, builders, contractors, manufacturers, who have to do with the making of them, and in the railroad companies, into whose hands they are constantly putting their own lives and the lives of those dearest to them.

Railroad Accidents—Chapter 11 - copyright 1879


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