The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

December 25, 2011

The Ashtabula Horror

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

Star Beacon

— 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.

Horror in the gulf

It was 7:28 p.m. when McGuire discerned the blurry, distant lights of Ashtabula’s depot just beyond the bridge that the train was crossing. Suddenly, there was the sound of a “crack” and the sensation of the engine running uphill. McGuire pulled the throttle wide open; the burst of momentum pushed the locomotive onto the west abutment of the collapsing bridge.

The Columbia, for a speck of a second, clung to the Socrates, but the pull of gravity was too intense. The coupling broke, the engine plunged some 70 feet into the gorge, but only after the cars behind it blazed the trail to hell. When the Columbia fell, it landed on the express car, instantly crushing any occupants. The locomotive spun about 180 degrees as it fell, and its headlight shining upon the scene of railroad cars strewn across the gulf and tossed one upon  another.

The luckiest of the passengers were those able to crawl out of a car, avoid the freezing water of the river and walk or crawl through the deep drifts to safety. Next in terms of good fortune were those who died instantly from the impact. Least fortunate were those injured and trapped in the piles of firewood that, seconds earlier, had been railroad cars.

After the Angola Horror nine years earlier (see last week’s Odd Tales), railroads were supposed to install self-extinguishing stoves in their passenger cars. Faced with the huge expense, the L.S. &M.S. put profits before lives and ignored the order, at least on the cars that made up the Pacific Express.

The stoves’ hot coals set free by the crash quickly went to work, igniting the kerosene dribbled from the lanterns across flesh and baggage, transforming the jumble of humanity and machinery into an inferno so hot it melted gold and iron and forever fused the word “horror” with “Ashtabula.”

From the depot, family members watched the train disappear into the darkness and then the lead sky above the gorge assume the glow of fiery death. The howl of the blizzard could not mask the screams of victims as the flames slowly ushered them into eternity. It was a sound that would haunt the witnesses for the rest of their lives.

No advance provision for access had been made for attending to such a calamity, although, in fact, the collapse of railroad bridges was fairly common in that era. Nevertheless, before the flames became entrenched in the scene, four men made it to the site and began to render aid to the passengers. They were Henry Apthrop, a telegraph repairs superintendent; Michael Tinley, a hotel saloon keeper; James Manning, a fire engine foreman; and Charles Philbrook, who was the railroad’s head painter. Several passengers who escaped relatively uninjured also gave aid and rescue as they were able.

There was within a few hundred yards of the disaster site a pump engine of the Ashtabula Volunteer Fire Department. Incredibly, that engine, which was under Manning’s control,  was not pressed into use. Rather, the hand fire engine “Protection” and steamer “Neptune” were dispatched from farther away.

Confusion and poor judgment became the protocols for the night. G.W. Knapp, the city’s fire chief, had a reputation for indecision, and he lived up to it at the worst possible time. Railroad officials insisted putting water on the fire would be pointless and priority ought to be given to rescuing the wounded. Knapp concurred, but some firefighters vainly attempted to extinguish the inferno with a bucket brigade. Fire engines were returned to quarters.

Horror prevailed in the valley even as confusion reigned above it. A man caught under the weight of the locomotive burned to death as rescuers vainly tried to free his legs from the trap. A father who managed to get his children to safety went back after his wife, who was trapped in the flames. She begged with him to slit her throat. Somehow, before the flames had their turn at her, she was freed.

Volunteers gathered along the bank to help remove the injured by sled and sleigh, a formidable task given the weather and steep slopes.

“The abutments looked as high as Niagara,” recalled a survivor who climbed up “the deep side of the gorge, floundering in snow two feet deep.”

There was no hospital in the city to care for the victims once they reached the top. The nearest structure was the Eagle Hotel, a rat hole where the first batch of injured were forced to endure the indignity of its filth. Other hotels and private residences were pressed into service to receive the dozens of stranded, injured passengers, some of which required amputations. Ten doctors and surgeons worked throughout the night tending to survivors.

They were caring for the victims of the nation’s worst railroad disaster.


Both the injured and the disaster site spelled opportunity for the city’s low life. One of the passengers, a young man who lost his mother in the inferno, had tucked his watch, money purses and dead mother’s jewelry into his clothing before being led up the hill. After being handed off to another “helper,” he was knocked unconscious. When he awoke, everything except his pocket watch, was missing.

His misfortune was hardly isolated. Some of the injured who were taken to the hotel were even robbed of their clothing. In the valley, the dead were particularly easy targets, and the brazen pirates descended upon the unguarded scene to collect their plunder. It was, in every sense, Ashtabula’s darkest night.

The last of the injured was rescued shortly before midnight. The fire was allowed to burn through the night. Railroad officials preferred it that way; without a body to identify, claims are difficult to prove.

The morning light revealed the extent of the horror. “The locomotive, the cars, and the bridge were mixed up in one indistinguishable mass,” wrote a survivor. Bodies and body parts were strewn across the landscape. Volunteers collected baskets full of shoes — their former owners burned up in the inferno.

A young photographer and firefighter by the name of Fred Blakeslee arrived on the scene early that morning and, with great difficulty, made the iconic images that continue to haunt us today.

Family members of survivors and suspected victims flocked to the city with the hope they would find their loved ones alive. Many ended up with the grim task of identifying charred remains or, worse, searching the wreck for some sliver of a former life claimed by the flames.

The final death toll of the Ashtabula Horror will never be known because there was no passenger list. The meticulous research of local historians who worked on the landmark “Bliss and Tragedy” book, used numerous sources to compile lists of survivors and victims. Of the former, they identified 71; of the victims, 99. News reports of the time quoted railroad officials as placing the death toll at around 80.

George W. Kepler, the Ashtabula merchant who was almost home, was among the dead.

About half of the victims could not be recognized because so little was left of their “earthly tent.” Bliss and his wife were among those deemed cremated, vanished without a trace of body part or personal effect.

On Jan. 19, 1877, three weeks after the disaster, the city of Ashtabula mourned the victims and buried in Chestnut Grove Cemetery the unrecognized remains and body parts.

For the next 19 years, the burial site went unmarked. On May 30, 1895, the monument to the unrecognized dead was unveiled. Twenty-five names are engraved on it, including those of P.P. and Lucy Bliss.

A short distance from this monument is the above-ground vault of Charles Collins, the engineer of the L.S. & M.S. Railroad at the time the failed bridge was built. Collins never signed off on the bridge and insisted its design was “experimental” for a wrought iron railroad bridge. It is said Collins “wept like a baby” when his eyes gazed upon the sight of the disaster wrought by this experiment.

Eventually, the disaster apparently claimed Collins. Tortured by his role in the disaster, he committed suicide — or so it was ruled. But a few months later, a “careful analysis” of Collin’s skull and all the facts led Dr. Stephen Smith, a professor and surgeon, to conclude that “Mr. Collins came to his death by a shot wound inflicted by other hands than his own.”

As with the exact number of passengers who were claimed by the Ashtabula Horror, the truth about Collins’ death hangs over this spot on the Ashtabula River like a mysterious mist on a late-December morning.

“Bliss and Tragedy” is available from the Ashtabula County Historical Society by mail. Information is at