On Friday, December 29, a blizzard was hitting the little town of Ashtabula, Ohio with more than 20 inches of snow and wind around 50mph. Despite the weather many passengers were trying to leave town after the holidays or were waiting for friends or family to arrive. Many of them awaited the arrival of the No.5 “Pacific Express” that was running more than two hours late from Erie, Pennsylvania. Weather delays had kept it in the Erie station until after 6:00 p.m. What was to come was tragic.
The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway Train No. 5, The Pacific Express, left Erie, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of December 29, 1876 in deep snow. Two locomotives, “Socrates” and “Columbia”, were hauling 11 railcars, including two express cars, two baggage cars, one smoking car, three coaches, and three sleeping cars that carried 159 passengers. At about 7:30 pm the train was crossing over the Ashtabula River about 1,000 feet from the railroad station at Ashtabula, Ohio when the bridge gave way beneath it. The lead locomotive made it across the bridge, while the second locomotive and the rest of the train plunged 76 feet into the water. The wooden cars were caught on fire by the heating stoves and lamps.
The local fire department arrived and immediate instructions from railroad employees were to get the wounded out and to clear a pathway up the side of the ravine. After this no water was put onto the fire, even after reports of survivors still trapped in the wreck. The survivors were carried on sleds to hotels and private houses in the town because there wasn’t a local hospital. Sadly, many people helping stole money and valuables from the survivors and dead, $1,500 being returned following investigation by detectives and after the mayor had made a proclamation.
As many as 159 passengers and crew were on board at the time of the accident, 92 were killed or died later from injuries; they included the gospel singer and hymn-writer Philip Bliss and his wife. Forty-eight of the fatalities were unrecognizable or consumed in the flames. Sixty-four people were injured. The coroner’s report had found that the railroad companies president, had improperly designed the bridge and it also was inadequately inspected.
Ashtabula General Hospital was built because of the accident and about ten years later, steam heat was adopted by the railroad, replacing the wood and coal stoves in passenger cars. In 1887 a federal system was set up to formally investigate fatal railroad accidents. Twenty years later, in Ashtabula’s Chestnut Grove Cemetery, a monument was erected to all those “unidentified” who died in the Ashtabula Railroad disaster.