The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


December 25, 2011

The Ashtabula Horror

Railroad disaster of Dec. 29, 1876, put Ashtabula in bad light

One hundred thirty-five years after the Ashtabula Horror occurred, the facts of the event are well established, yet mists of mystery and stains of shame remain.                                   

   First the facts in the matter.

The site was a Lake Shore and Michigan Southern (L.S. & M.S.) Railway iron bridge over the Ashtabula River gulf, a short distance from today’s Cederquist Park. The 165-foot bridge was made of wrought iron, of the Howe truss design and erected in 1865. It cost $75,000.

The train was the No. 5, Pacific Express, the railroad’s “crack” passenger train between New York and Chicago. It had left New York Dec. 28 and, after being divided at Albany, N.Y., the Chicago-bound section continued west. It consisted of two locomotives, the Socrates and Columbia; their tenders; two baggage cars; three sleepers; two day-passenger coaches; a smoking car; and drawing-room car. It was traveling on the south tracks of the railroad’s two-track system, and running more than two hours late when it entered Ohio.

The weather was a blizzard, the “worst storm” that “Pap” Folsom, engineer of the Columbia, had ever seen along the L.S. & M.S. Indeed, that Friday was the third day of heavy snow, strong winds and bitter temperatures that had forced Ashtabula businesses to close early and residents to hunker down next to their fireplaces. Among the few folks who had to be out in the cold that night were railroad employees and family members of those arriving home on the Pacific Express.

The blizzard made the evening all the darker, the trip all the more tedious, for Dan McGuire, engineer of the lead locomotive, Socrates. Hour after hour he forced the train through the blinding snow and darkness toward Chicago. Behind the Socrates and Columbia, dozens of passengers struggled with the same monotony of seeing nothing but blinding snow outside the windows of their coaches.

As with most forms of public transportation, the train was a microcosm assembled by fate. The most famous of the passengers was Philip Paul Bliss, age 38, and his wife Lucy Young Bliss, 35, of Rome, Pa. They were on their way to Chicago, at the request of Evangelist Dwight L. Moody. P.P. Bliss was a hymn writer, both prolific and famous, who worked with Moody in his outreaches. The nature of the couple’s visit to Chicago was to sing at Chicago Avenue Church on New Year’s Eve; Moody and his assistant Ira D. Sankey were worn down from a long series of services held at the church and requested that Bliss provide some relief for them. The famous couple left their two children at home, where P.P. Bliss had just enjoyed “the happiest Christmas he had ever known” with his mother, sister and in-laws.

This microcosm also included George W. Kepler, 29, a merchant from Ashtabula who was returning from Erie, Pa. George was almost home, only the Ashtabula River separated him from his wife on that night so long ago.

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