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98 RAILROAD ACCIDENTS.

CHAPTER XI.

BRIDGE ACCIDENTS.

GREAT as were the terrors inspired by the Norwalk disaster in those comparatively early days of railroad experience, and deep as the impression on the public memory must have been to leave its mark on the statute book even to the present time, that and the similar disaster at the Richelieu river are believed to have been the only two of great magnitude which have occurred at open railroad draws. That this should be so is well calculated to excite surprise, for the draw-bridge precautions against accident in America are wretchedly crude and inadequate, amounting as a rule to little more than the primitive balls and targets by day and lanterns by night, without any system of alarms or interlocking. Electricity as an adjunct to human care, or a corrective rather of human negligence, is almost never used; and, in fact, the chief reliance is still on the vigilance of engine-drivers. But, if accidents 

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at draws have been comparatively rare and unattended with any considerable loss of life, it has been far otherwise with the rest of the structures of which the draw forms a part. Bridge accidents in fact always have been, and will probably always remain, incomparably the worst to which travel by rail is exposed. It would be impossible for corporations to take too great precautions against them, and that the precautions taken are very great is conclusively shown by the fact, that, with thousands of bridges many times each day subjected to the strain of the passage at speed of heavy trains, so very few disasters occur. When they do occur, however, the lessons taught by them are, though distinct enough, apt to be in one important respect of a far less satisfactory character than those taught by collisions. In the case of these last the great resultant fact speaks for itself. The whole community knows when it sees a block system, or a stronger car construction, or an improved train brake suddenly introduced that the sacrifice has not been in vain-that the lesson has been learned. It is by no means always so in the case of accidents on bridges. With these the cause of disaster is apt to be so scientific in its nature that it cannot even be described, except through the use of engineering terms which to the mass of readers are absolutely incomprehensible. The simplest of railroad bridges is an inexplicable mystery to at least ninety-nine persons out of each hundred.

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Even when the cause of disaster is understood, the precautions taken against its recurrence cannot be seen. From the nature of the case they must consist chiefly of a better material, or a more scientific construction, or an increased watchfulness on the part of officials and subordinates. This, however, is not apparent on the surface, and, when the next accident of the same nature occurs, the inference, as inevitable as it is usually unjust, is at once drawn that the one which preceded it had been productive of no results. The truth of this was strongly illustrated by the two bridge accidents which happened, the one at Ashtabula, Ohio, on the 29th of December, 1876, and the other at Tariffville, Connecticut, on the 15th of January, 1878.

There has been no recent disaster which combined more elements of horror or excited more widespread public emotion than that at Ashtabula bridge. It was, indeed, so terrible in its character and so heartrending in its details, that for the time being it fairly divided the attention of the country with that dispute over the presidential succession, then the subject uppermost in the minds of all. A blinding northeasterly snowstorm, accompanied by a' heavy wind, prevailed throughout the day which preceded the accident, greatly impeding the movement of trains. The Pacific express over the Michigan Southern & Lake Shore road had left Erie, going west, considerably behind its time, and had been started only with

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great difficulty and with the assistance of four loco. motives. It was due at Ashtabula at about 5:30 o'clock P.M., but was three hours late, and, the days being then at their shortest, when it arrived at the bridge which was the scene of the accident the darkness was so great that nothing could be seen through the driving snow by those on the leading locomotive even for a distance of 50 feet ahead. The train was made up of two heavy locomotives, four baggage, mail and express cars, one smoking car, two ordinary coaches, a drawing-room car and three sleepers, being in all two locomotives and eleven cars, in the order named, containing, as nearly as can be ascertained, 190 human beings, of whom 170 were passengers. Ashtabula bridge is situated only about 1,000 feet east of the station of the same name, and spans a deep ravine, at the bottom of which flows a shallow stream, some two or three feet in depth, which empties into Lake Erie a mile or two away. The bridge was an iron Howe truss of 150 feet span, elevated 69 feet above the bottom of the ravine, and supported at either end by solid masonwork abutments. It had been built some fourteen years. As the train approached the bridge it had to force its way through a heavy snow-drift, and, when it passed onto it, it was moving at a speed of some twelve or fourteen miles an hour. The entire length of the bridge afforded space only for two of the express cars at most in addition to the locomotives, so that when the wheels of the leading locomotive rested

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on the western abutment of the bridge nine of the eleven cars which made up the train, including all those in which there were passengers, had yet to reach its eastern end. At the instant when the train stood in this position, the engineer of the leading locomotive heard a sudden cracking sound apparently beneath him, and thought he felt the bridge giving way. Instantly pulling the throttle valve wide open, his locomotive gave a spring forward and, as it did so, the bridge fell, the rear wheels of his tender falling with it. The jerk and impetus of the locomotive, however, sufficed to tear out the coupling, and as his tender was dragged up out of the abyss onto the track, though its rear wheels did not get upon the rails, the frightened engineer caught a fearful glimpse of the second locomotive as it seemed to turn and then fall bottom upwards into the ravine. The bridge had given way, not at once but by a slowly sinking motion, which began at the point where the pressure was heaviest, under the two locomotives and at the west abutment. There being two tracks, and this train being on the southernmost of the two, the southern truss had first yielded, letting that side of the bridge down, and rolling, as it were, the second locomotive and the cars immediately behind it off to the left and quite clear of a straight line drawn between the two abutments; then almost immediately the other truss gave way and the whole bridge fell, but in doing so swung slightly to the

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right. Before this took place the entire train with the exception of the last two sleepers had reached the chasm, each car as it passed over falling nearer than the one which had preceded it to the east abutment, and finally the last two sleepers came, and, without being deflected from their course at all, plunged straight down and fell upon the wreck of the bridge at its east end. It was necessarily all the work of a few seconds.

At the bottom of the ravine the snow lay waist deep and the stream was covered with ice some eight inches in thickness. Upon this were piled up the fallen cars and engine, the latter on top of the former near the western abutment and upside down. All the passenger cars were heated by stoves. At first a dead silence seemed to follow the successive shocks of the falling mass. In less than two minutes, however, the fire began to show itself and within fifteen the holocaust was at its height. As usual, it was a mass of human beings, all more or less stunned, a few killed, many injured and help. less, and more yet simply pinned down to watch, in the possession as full as helpless of all their faculties, the rapid approach of the flames. The number of those killed outright seems to have been surprisingly small. In the last car, for instance, no one was lost. This was due to the energy and presence of mind of the porter, a negro named Steward, who, when he felt the car resting firmly on its side, broke a window and crawled through it, and then passed

 
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along breaking the other windows and extricating the passengers until all were gotten out. Those in the other cars were far less fortunate. Though an immediate alarm had been given in the neighboring town, the storm was so violent and the snow so deep that assistance arrived but slowly. Nor when it did arrive could much be effected. The essential thing was to extinguish the flames. The means for so doing were close at hand in a steam pump belonging to the railroad company, while an abundance of hose could have been procured at another place but a short distance off. In the excitement and agitation of the moment contradictory orders were given, even to forbidding the use of the pump, and practically no effort to extinguish the fire was made. Within half an hour of the accident the flames were at their height, and when the next morning dawned nothing remained in the ravine but a charred and undistinguishable mass of car trucks, brake-rods, twisted rails and bent and tangled bridge iron, with the upturned locomotive close to the west abutment.

In this accident some eighty persons are supposed to have lost their lives, while over sixty others were injured. The exact number of those killed can never be known, however, as more than half of those reported were utterly consumed in the fire; indeed, even of the bodies recovered scarcely one half could be identified. Of the cause of the disaster much was said at the time in language most

 A STOVE-DISASTER AS WELL. 105

unnecessarily scientific;—but little was required to be said. It admitted of no extenuation. An iron bridge, built in the early days of iron-bridges,—that which fell under the train at Ashtabula, was faulty in its original construction, and the indications of weakness it had given had been distinct, but had not been regarded. That it had stood so long and that it should have given way when it did, were equally matters for surprise. A double track bridge, it should naturally have fallen under the combined pressure of trains moving simultaneously in opposite directions. The strain under which it yielded was not a particularly severe one, even taken in connection with the great atmospheric pressure of the storm then prevailing. It was, in short, one of those disasters, fortunately of infrequent occurrence, with which accident has little if any connection. It was due to original inexperience and to subsequent ignorance or carelessness, or possibly recklessness as criminal as it was fool-hardy.

Besides being a bridge accident, this was also a stove accident,—in this respect a repetition of Angola. One of the most remarkable features about it, indeed, was the fearful rapidity with which the fire spread, and the incidents of its spread detailed in the subsequent evidence of the survivors were simply horrible. Men, women and children, full of the instinct of self-preservation, were caught and pinned fast for the advancing flames, while those who tried to rescue them were driven back by the

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heat and compelled helplessly to listen to their shrieks. It is, however, unnecessary to enter into these details, for they are but the repetition of an experience which has often been told, and they do but enforce a lesson which the railroad companies seem resolved not to learn. Unquestionably the time in this country will come when through trains will be heated from a locomotive or a heating-car. That time, however, had not yet come. Meanwhile the evidence would seem to show that at Ashtabula, as at Angola, at least two lives were sacrificed in the subsequent fire to each one lost in the immediate shock of the disaster.*

But a few days more than a year after the Ashtabula accident another catastrophe, almost exactly similar in its details, occurred on the Connecticut Western road. It is impossible to even estimate the amount of overhauling to which bridges throughout the country had in the meanwhile been subjected, or the increased care used in their exami-

* The Angola was probably the most impressively horrible of the many "stove accidents." That which occurred near Prospect, N. Y., upon the Buffalo, Corry & Pittsburgh road, on December 24, 1872, should not, however, be forgotten. In this case a trestle bridge gave way precipitating a Passenger train some thirty feet to the bottom of a ravine, where the cars caught fire from the stoves. Nineteen lives were lost, mostly by burning. The Richmond Switch disaster of April 19, 1873, on the New York, Providence & Boston road was of the same character. Three passengers only were there burned to death, but after the disaster the flames rushed "through the car as quickly as if the wood had been a lot of hay,' and, after those who were endeavoring to release the wounded and imprisoned men were driven away, their cries were for some time heard through the smoke and flame.

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nation. All that can be said is that during the year 1877 no serious accident due to the inherent weakness of any bridge occurred on the 70,000 miles of American railroad. Neither, so far as can be ascertained, was the Tariffville disaster to be referred to that cause. It happened on the evening of January 15, 1878. A large party of excursionists were returning from a Moody and Sankey revival meeting on a special train, consisting of two locomotives and ten cars. Half a mile west of Tariffville the railroad crosses the Farmington river. The bridge at this point was a wooden Howe truss, with two spans of 163 feet each. It had been in use about seven years and, originally of ample strength and good construction, there is no evidence that its strength had since been unduly impaired by neglect or exposure. It should, therefore, have sufficed to bear twice the strain to which it was now subjected. Exactly as at Ashtabula, however, the west span of the bridge gave way under the train just as the leading locomotives passed onto the tressel-work beyond it: the ice broke under the falling wreck, and the second loco. motive With four cars were precipitated into the river. The remaining cars were stopped by the rear end' of the third car, resting as it did on the centre pier of the bridge, and did not leave the rails. The fall to the surface of the ice was about ten feet. There was no fire to add to the horrors in this case, but thirteen persons were 

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crushed to death or drowned, and thirty-three others injured.*

Naturally the popular inference was at once drawn that this was a mere repetition of the Ashtabula experience,—that the fearful earlier lesson had been thrown away on a corporation either unwilling or not caring to learn. The newspapers far and wide resounded with ill considered denunciation, and the demand was loud for legislation .of the crudest conceivable character, especially a law prohibiting the passage over any bridge of two locomotives attached to one passenger train. The fact, however, seems to be that, except in its superficial details, the Tariffville disaster had no features in common with that at Ashtabula; as nearly as can be ascertained it was due neither to the weak-

* Of the same general character with the Tariffville and Ashtabula accidents were those which occurred on November 1, 1855, upon the Pacific railroad of Missouri at the bridge over the Gasconade, and on July 27, 1875, upon the Northern Pacific at the bridge over the Mississippi near Brainerd. In the first of these accidents the bridge gave way under an excursion train, in honor of the opening of the road, and its chief engineer was among the killed. The train fell some thirty feet, and 22 persons lost their lives while over 50 suffered serious injuries.

At Brainerd the train,—a "mixed" one,—went down nearly 80 feet into the river. The locomotive and several cars had passed the span which fell, in safety, but were pulled back and went down on top of the train. There were but few passengers in it, of whom three were killed. In falling the caboose car at the rear of the train, in which most of the passengers were, struck on a pier and broke in two, leaving several passengers in it. In the case of the Gasconade, the disaster was due to the weakness of the bridge, which fell under the weight of the train. There is some question as to the Brainerd accident, whether it was occasioned by weakness of the bridge or the derailment upon it of a freight car.

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ness nor to the overloading of the bridge. Though the evidence subsequently given is not absolutely conclusive on this point, the probabilities would seem to be that, while on the bridge, the second locomotive was derailed in some unexplained way and consequently fell on the stringers which yielded under the sudden blow. The popular impression, therefore, as to the bearing which the first of these two strikingly similar accidents had upon the last tended only to bring about results worse than useless. The bridge fell, not under the steady weight of two locomotives, but under the sudden shock incident to the derailment of one. The remedy, therefore, lay in the direction of so planking or otherwise guarding the floors of similar bridges that in case of derailment the locomotives or cars should not fall on the stringers or greatly diverge from the rails so as to endanger the trusses. On the other hand the suggestion of a law prohibiting the passage over bridges of more than one locomotive with any passenger train, while in itself little better than a legal recognition of bad bridge building, also served to divert public attention from the true lesson of the disaster. Another newspaper precaution, very favorably considered at the time, was the putting of one locomotive, where two had to be used, at the rear end of the train as a pusher, instead of both in front. This expedient might indeed obviate one cause of danger, but it would do so only by substituting for it another which has been the fruitful 

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source of some of the worst railroad disasters on record.*

* "The objectionable and dangerous practice also employed on some railways of assisting trains tip inclines by means of pilot engines in the rear instead of in front, has led to several accidents in the past year and should be discontinued. "—General Report to the Board of Trade upon the Accidents on the Railways of Great Britain in 1878, P. 15.


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