The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

November 29, 2012

Documentary about Ashtabula Railroad Bridge Disaster unveiled

JEFFERSON — Canton documentary producer Len Brown says a corporate sponsor will spend $200,000 for a 30-second spot on a national television program.

That being the case, two hours of national television exposure for $300,000 is a deal.

Len Brown and his wife Patti,  owners of Beacon Productions, need $300,000 to fund their documentary, “Engineering Tragedy,” a two-hour film about the Ashtabula Train Disaster that claimed 97 lives, including those of hymnwriter P.P. Bliss and his wife.

Erie, Pa., PBS station WQLN has signed a letter of intent to broadcast the documentary, which could then be picked up by other PBS stations. Len Brown said the county stands to experience a surge of tourism after viewers learn about the disaster. Studies show that tourism increases 20 percent in the months after a documentary about the community hits the television screens. And the Browns feel they have a real winner with the Ashtabula Train Disaster story.

“You have the best-kept secret ever,” Patti Brown told an audience of potential underwriters who gathered at the Jefferson Community Center Tuesday evening. “I’ve lived in northeast Ohio all my life, and I’d never heard about this event.”

The couple, who own Beacon Productions, first learned about the incident last winter. After reading about it online, they made a trip to Ashtabula in March to visit the site and meet with local historians Barbara and Bill Hamilton, who presented them with the research of the late Tom Corts and others.

“They put in our laps 10 years of research, it was unbelievable,” Patti Brown said.

Patti, who works at Malone University, wrote a script based upon the research. She said the script focuses on the disaster and the engineering of the bridge that collapsed under the weight of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway Company’s crack passenger train during a blizzard.

The documentary they envision will use a combination of historical photographs, interviews and re-enactments to tell the story. During the presentation Tuesday evening, Len Brown showed a clip from a History Channel documentary to give the audience a sense of the style and feel of what they want to produce. They also heard an audio trailer, narrated by Monty Lewis Sauerwein in his “film voice.”

Sauerwein is a member of the crew that the Browns have assembled to work on the film. Many of the members are from northeast Ohio and include North Canton computer graphics artist Matt McCombs, who will combine live action with computer generated graphics to re-create the terror of that horrible night.

Debbie Marsh, who worked with James Cameron on “Titanic,” is line producer. She told the guests that the production has been broken down into more than 400 scenes, each one of which has its own budget.

The National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA) is accounting partner for the film. Len Brown said the project has 501(c)(3) status, and donations, which are made directly to NETA, are tax-deductible. NETA also will handle distribution of the film to other PBS stations.

The Browns are looking for “angel donations” — there will not be any pay back of the principal or return on the investment. He said, however, that foundations that contribute a significant portion of the underwriting could have a 30-second recognition at the beginning of the film.

The $300,000 price tag is relatively minuscule for a two-hour documentary, Marsh said. Most cost $1 million or more.

Len Brown said they’ve been able hold down the cost by partnering with sponsors. Bachman, which makes model trains, donated the scale models of the two locomotives and 11 passenger cars that will be used in the production. He said that donation saved the production at least $15,000.

A scale-model replica of the bridge is being built in Phoenix, Ariz., by Mainline Bridges, which is donating the $9,600 item. At a farm in North Bloomfield, a replica of the Ashtabula River gorge is being built and will eventually receive the bridge and train for filming.

Marsh said they hope to begin filming in February.

“We are kind of hoping for a blizzard,” she said.

Very little of the film will be made in Ashtabula, Len Brown said. Local shooting locations will include the Chestnut Grove Cemetery and Hubbard House (interiors). Ohio Village  in Columbus and Century Village in Burton will provide backdrops for some of the exterior shots; the Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania will be used for shooting scenes inside the luxurious, ornate coaches.

A website,, provides background on the project and its production team, as well as updates on production. The Browns said they will be doing more promotional events around northeast Ohio to stimulate interest in the project and attract underwriters. He said they are available to talk to local groups, as well.

The Bachman train that will be used in the film is on loan to the Jefferson Historical Society through Dec. 20. It will be running from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; the society is located next to Henderson Memorial Library, East Jefferson Street.

To learn more about “Engineering Tragedy” or become a donor, visit www.

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