Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster

The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway Train No. 5, The Pacific Express, left a snowy Erie, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of December 29, 1876.

As The Pacific Express plowed through the snow and crossed a bridge over the Ashtabula River, about 100 yards (91 m) from the railroad station at Ashtabula, Ohio, the passengers heard a terrible cracking sound. In just seconds, the bridge fractured and the train plunged 70 feet (21 m) into the water.

The lead locomotive "Socrates" made it across the bridge, while the second locomotive, "Columbia" and 11 railcars including two express cars, two baggage cars, one smoking car, two passenger cars and three sleeping cars and a caboose fell into the ravine below, then igniting a raging fire. The wooden cars were set aflame by kerosene-heating stoves and kerosene burning lamps. Some cars landed in an upright position and within a few minutes small localized fires became an inferno.

The rescue attempt was feeble at best because of the ill-preparedness of the nearby station to respond to emergencies. Of 159 passengers and crew on board that night, 64 people were injured and 92 were killed or died later from injuries sustained in the crash (48 of the fatalities were unrecognizable or consumed in the flames). It is unclear how many died of the fall, separate from the blaze. Matters were made worse by the heavy snow the area had just received.

December 29, 1876, was the date of the occurrence; the time of day about half past seven o'clock in the evening. At that moment the Pacific Express, No. 5, bound westward over the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern railway, broke through the iron bridge that spanned the Ashtabula river on the line of the road, and suddenly plunged with a precious cargo of human life into a chasm seventy feet deep. The night was a wild and bitter one. A furious snow-storm had raged all the previous day, and had heaped great masses of snow along and across the track. The wind was a cold, biting one, and was blowing with a velocity of about forty miles per hour. The darkness was dense. On such a night as this the train, composed of eleven coaches, and drawn by two heavy engines, approached the fated bridge, located about one thousand feet east of the Ashtabula station. It was more than two hours behind the time for its arrival. On board there were not less than one hundred and fifty six human souls. There were two express cars, two baggage cars, three passenger coaches, one of them the smoking car, one drawing room coach, and three sleeping coaches. The bridge was an iron structure, and carried a double track. It consisted of two trusses of the Howe truss type, and the length of the span between abutments was one hundred and fifty feet. The train approached the bridge on the south track. At the moment of the crash, one engine, by a sudden plunge forward, had gained the west abutment, while the other engine, two express cars, and part of the baggage car rested with their weight upon the bridge. The remainder of the train was drawn into the gulf. Of the persons on board, at least eighty perished in the wreck; at least sixty three were wounded more or less, but escaped from death; five died after their rescue.

In December 1876, a Howe-truss bridge, near Ashtabula, Ohio, collapsed while a train with three passenger cars was crossing it. Howe-truss bridges were made from either wood or iron. This particular bridge was constructed of iron. The train and its passengers plunged sixty feet into a ravine and creek. The lamps and stoves used to light and heat the train cars quickly caught the wreckage on fire. Eighty-three people died, with an additional sixty suffering various injuries, ranging from fractures to frostbite.