The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

December 31, 2011

Ashtabula Horror left many interesting crumbs on history’s table

Star Beacon

— Over the past century, many stories relating to the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster, Dec. 29, 1876, have emerged. Here is a sampling of these tales as we wrap up the first 65 years of Ashtabula County history in our Odd Tales series.

Last man across

The last man to safely take a train across the ill-fated bridge that night was C.N. Pond, 22 at the time. Pond became an engineer at the age of 19. The night of the disaster he was working a different job, on a switching engine.

Freight had arrived in the city from Oil City, Pa., and Pond’s orders were to move it to the freight house, where it would remain until the mainline was cleared of snow. That necessitated running the train onto the gulf bridge in order to switch to a another track. While Pond waited on the bridge, a freight train from the east approached and passed thereupon shortly before 7:30 p.m.

Pond delivered the freight and was told to start clearing the tracks of snow. The drifts were so large, however, Pond’s engine stalled. He sent for help, but none arrived. Pond and his fireman, Henry Dwyer, spent the night caring for the stalled engine, unaware of the disaster — and his unique fortune — until the next morning.

First to help

James Edward Manning, born Sept. 8, 1858, was credited as one of the four persons who first reached the wreck. Getting down the steep gulf bank, which was covered with at least 2 feet of snow, was a major feat. Amazingly, Manning did it without benefit of natural legs.

At the age of 8, Manning had accepted a dare from one of his friends and tried to hitch a ride on a Lake Shore and Michigan Southern train. Manning lost, big time. He slipped under the train and both of his legs were amputated.

Doctors gave the child little hope of survival, but he pulled through and went on to get a billing clerk’s job with the railroad. It is said Manning made all of his artificial legs.

Manning, who was known as “Uncle Jim” around town, died in 1954 at the age of 95.

Last survivor

The last survivor of the Ashtabula Disaster to die is believed to have been Effie Neely, who passed March 3, 1960, at the age of 101.

She was 18 and returning from an excursion at Niagara Falls with her boyfriend when the disaster struck. Her friend was killed.

Effie married, and she and her husband had one son. Both of them preceded her death.

The name Effie Neely does not appear on the list of 71 survivors that was published in “Bliss and Tragedy.” There is an Ettie Hamlin of Lafayette, Ind., listed, however. Her age is not provided.

Frozen in time

Photography was still in its infancy when the Ashtabula Horror occurred. Photographers used “wet plates,” which involve making up glass plates in the field and then exposing the coated plate in a camera.

The morning after the disaster, Fred Blakeslee, a young photographer based in Ashtabula, climbed down the icy steps to the pump station and set up his view camera. The wet-plate process was ill suited for the cold, and Blakeslee finally resorted to warming his plates in a switchman’s shanty in order to successfully register an image.

The image Blakeslee thus made has become iconic in the history of disasters and Ashtabula. He sold thousands of prints of the scene.

Some 23 years after the disaster, a set of stereo negatives taken of the scene by a Cleveland man turned up at the National Exposition in Philadelphia. Hal P. Denton claimed to have obtained the images as a gift from the photographer who told Denton that he was among the first from Cleveland to reach the disaster.

Denton later claimed in a newspaper article that when he later came across the negatives among his possessions, they had been broken. However, Denton claimed that he’d had a set of prints made from the fragile glass negatives before their destruction.

Wedded bliss

The story is often told that hymn writer P.P. Bliss survived the initial crash and managed to crawl out of the car to safety before fire engulfed it. However, when he saw that his wife, Lucy, was trapped therein and would be burned alive, he returned to the car to die with her.

While a great story, its veracity is questionable. This much is known about the couple: there were no remains of them that could be positively identified, and their names are listed on the memorial at Chestnut Grove Cemetery as among the others who suffered the same horrible fate.

Perfect storm

At least three groups conducted investigations into the causes of and responsibility for the disaster: the Ashtabula County Coroner’s Jury, a joint committee of the Ohio Legislature and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Testimony gathered by the Joint Committee was published and is available online through the Googlebooks site. Although they often get bogged down in engineering details, the testimonies suggest that the bridge was flawed from the start and was too heavy as a result of being made of cast iron.

The design, a Howe truss, was common for wood-and-iron bridges (Ashtabula County has two covered bridges of this style), but considered experimental when applied to an all-iron structure for railroad loads. All that iron made the bridge excessively heavy, and the components were designed to act independently.

An interesting familial thread ran through the key players who designed and provided material for the bridge. Amassa Stone was the designer. His brother-in-law, Elias Howe, owned the Howe Bridge and Truss Company and was the inventor of the truss design that bore his name. Amassa’s brother, Andros, was a partner in the Cleveland iron works firm that provided the I-beams for the superstructure.

Joseph Tomlinson, a well qualified civil engineer, was hired to develop specifications, prepare detailed drawings for the fabrication and supervise construction. Tomlinson, in his testimony, reported frequent clashes with Stone over the use of iron and claimed that Charles Collins, the railroad’s chief engineer, knew the bracing was insufficient.

“Mr. Collins knew that they were defective — that is my belief,” Tomlinson testified.

Collins denied any responsibility for the bridge’s construction and the lack of regular inspections. He said the bridge was, as far as he was concerned, an experiment and knew of no other bridge of its kind.

The engineer of the Columbia, the locomotive that fell into the abyss that night, testified that he “never really liked the bridge” and always heard a snapping sound every time he took a train over it.

 Collins was found dead in his Cleveland home shortly after his testimony was taken. At first, his death was ruled a suicide, but subsequent investigations suggested he was murdered; the forensic evidence did not support suicide.

The disaster eventually claimed the life of Amassa Stone, who killed himself May 10, 1883. As with Collins, Stone denied culpability when he testified before the Joint Committee . Stone insisted that the collapse resulted from the train derailing on the bridge and the effects of the wind and snow loading on the structure and train.

Perhaps the best explanation for collapse, which was most likely due to a perfect storm of multiple issues, came from the ASCE’s work. Investigator Charles McDonald, while agreeing with many of the Joint Committee’s findings, also determined that a flaw in the iron of the superstructure was at the heart of a series of events that cascaded into the nation’s worst rail bridge accident. The flaw was an air hole that extended over half the section that used the iron component. A bitter cold night, blizzard conditions and heavy train pushed the defect to the breaking point, calling to task the engineering and structural deficiencies of the other components, also found wanting. It was Ashtabula’s Darkest Night.