The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 8, 2012

Locomotive overboard!

Somewhere off Ashtabula, a steam locomotive made a big splash

Staff Writer

— In the history of railroading in Northeast Ohio, it was a matter of poetic justice paid forward.

It was September 1851. A railroad line stretching east from Cleveland to the state line was under construction. The line stalled at Ashtabula, however, where the Ashtabula River gulf tossed up a huge obstacle. It was, however, just a matter of months before the gulf would be spanned and a slow decline of the lake shipping industry be ushered in by the steam locomotives that would follow.

In the fall of 1851, those lake-going ships were still needed to supply the railroads with material and equipment. It was akin to a smoker dying from lung cancer being forced to sell tobacco to pay his medical bills.

And so it was that a new locomotive destined for the Cleveland, Painesville and Ashtabula Railroad was loaded onto the Brig. S.B. Ruggles at Buffalo around the 12th of September. The locomotive was placed at a right angle to the ship’s deck and secured thereupon. A tender, also destined for the railroad, was likewise lashed to the deck.

The Ruggles was built in 1837 at Dunkirk, N.Y. She had a capacity of 183 tons and measured 90 feet long and 25 feet wide. Sailing along with a locomotive and tender lashed to her deck, the old Ruggles must have made quite sight.

As is often the case on Lake Erie in late summer, a strong gale blew up and the Ruggles, with her awkward load, began lurching in the heavy sea. The powerful movements were too much for the lashing that held the locomotive on deck. Somewhere offshore of Ashtabula, the locomotive broke free, slid off the ship and sank to the bottom of Lake Erie.

The tender, however, was saved, according to the Morning News Express of Buffalo, Sept. 17, 1851.

The locomotive, valued at $5,000, was not insured. Another $3,000 of losses were incurred as a result of damage to the ship.

Amazingly, just two months later, the Ruggles was once again entrusted with a locomotive and tender bound for Cleveland. The cargo also included merchandise valued at $13,000.

John Montgomery was captain of the ill-fated ship, which left Nov. 16, 1851, from Buffalo. Thirty miles out of home port, the wind changed suddenly, the seas became treacherous and the Ruggles sprung a leak. Montgomery, no doubt recalling his September mishap in bad seas, turned back for port.

About 20 miles from Buffalo, the locomotive and tender broke free  and slid into the lake. But Montgomery’s troubles did not end with the big splash. The ship missed the harbor, was driven onto the piles of the basin and sank.

Total loss was $25,000. The ship itself was valued at $3,000 and was insured, according to the Morning Express. The newspaper did not indicate if the cargo was insured.

There was no loss of life in either mishap. And it is unknown if there was an attempt to raise the locomotives, but chances are, the iron horses are still somewhere on the bottom on Lake Erie.

And they are not alone. Another brig, Clarion, lost two locomotives valued at $16,000 off the shore by the Grand River. Two years later, it was announced that a diver had discovered two locomotives in 22 feet of water “14 miles above Grand River.” It is unclear if those locomotives were from the Clarion or the Concord, yet another ship that lost locomotives from its deck during a storm in 1852.

Stagecoaches suffer

Given the dangers inherent to lake shipping, along with the challenges presented by weather and the limited shipping season, our ancestors’ enthusiasm for the railroads is understandable.

Ice conditions on the lakes in the spring of 1852 punctuated the need for a reliable east-west transportation option. On April 2 of that year, east-bound mail vessels on Lake Erie encountered a huge mass of ice that had blown into the east end of the lake. Shipping stalled at Ashtabula, where the east-bound ships were forced to dock and wait out the conditions. Fifty bags of mail, weighing two tons, waited on the docks for stagecoaches and other horse-drawn rigs to forward it to Erie. Taverns in the city likewise were filled to capacity as the delayed passengers waited for an alternative or break in the weather.

“The north ridge road east of here looked like a procession, it was filled with people travelling east,” observed one writer.

Two months later, June 1, 1852, construction of the railroad bridge across the Ashtabula Gulf began. The structure was 780 feet long, required 2,600 pieces of timber and contained 80 tons of casting and bolts.

The Howe truss bridge thus enabled the Cleveland, Painesville and Ashtabula Railroad to continue east and connect with the Franklin Canal Company’s railroad at the state line.

The Cleveland, Painesville and Ashtabula was incorporated Feb. 18, 1848, to build a line northeast from Cleveland to the Franklin line, which ran west from Erie, Pa. On Nov. 20, 1852, the line from Cleveland was completed to Dunkirk, N.Y. By that time, the trains had been running between Cleveland and Ashtabula for 10 months. In 1854, after a difference in rail gauges between the eastern and western sections was resolved, the line between Cleveland and Buffalo was completed.

In the years that followed, the railroads captured much of the freight business that had been the mainstay of the lake shipping industry. Nevertheless, ship building continued at Ashtabula Harbor for at least another decade, even though vessels seldom called upon the harbor after the railroads were established. Many of the large warehouses that had been built in the harbor from 1830 to 1850 fell into disrepair.

The biggest loser, however, was the stagecoach industry. On Nov. 14, 1852, two days before the Cleveland-to-Dunkirk line opened, the coaches made their list trip west.

“... a long line of old stage coaches passed through Ashtabula like a solemn funeral procession, on their ‘march’ to Cleveland,” wrote Glenn H. Leggett in 1920.

The rail line that captured this business would eventually be consolidated as the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, which replaced the wood trestle built in 1852 with the infamous steel Howe truss bridge that collapsed Dec. 29, 1876, claiming nearly 100 lives in the process.

“The bridge was very high, and loomed up in the distance, tall and dark and gloomy,” wrote Stephen D. Peet, in “The Ashtabula Disaster.” “Travelers by the wagon road, at a distance up the river a mile away, would stop and look at this structure ... and watch the cars as they passe din bold relief against the sky ... There was something almost fearful in the sight. The recklessness of danger impressed the observer ... Here, then, was the bridge ... a mysterious thing.”