Friday, April 30, 2010

The Ghosts of Ashtabula

On December 29, 1876, the town of Ashtabula, Ohio, became the site of the worst rail disaster in U.S. history up to that time. A blizzard (with winds topping 50 mph) had left more than 20 inches of snow. The No. 5 train, known as the Pacific Express, was two hours late arriving in Ashtabula, due to the inclement weather; the station was filled with passengers.

The train, despite the delay, was moving right along at a whopping ten miles per hour. The train included two locomotives, two baggage, passenger, and express cars, three sleeping cars, and a smoking car. No one can be sure exactly how many passengers were traveling the No. 5 that day, but the estimate is that there were at least 147 people, passengers and crew, on board.

Daniel McGuire was the engineer of the first locomotive. As the train approached Ashtabula, it had to cross the bridge over Ashtabula Creek. McGuire increased the speed, in order to push through the piles of snow on the tracks, not to mention fighting the high wind. As the first locomotive came to the other side of the bridge, however, McGuire had an odd feeling that the train was somehow heading up an incline. When he looked behind him, he saw the second engine and eleven more cars falling into the creek - a distance of more than eighty feet - along with much of the railway bridge. McGuire steamed ahead, breaking the coupling with the second locomotive and driving to a safe point.

The Ashtabula train station was only about a fifth of a mile past the bridge. Telegraph operator William Alsell, a telegraph operator, was the first person at the station to find out what had happened to the train. He had heard the whistle as the train came near the bridge, and walked toward it, in the hope that it was a passenger train and that he might ride through town on it. When he saw that it was indeed the No. 5, he turned back toward the station to get his belongings. It was then that he heard the crash; he swiveled back to see the cars fall into the void. He ran to the bridge - but the bridge was gone.

A young woman named Marian Shepherd survived the crash. At the time it occurred, she was in her berth in one of the sleeper cars. She heard an odd sound, as if the train were now traveling along the ties, rather than the rails. Then she heard glass shattering. Later, she remembered someone else in her car screaming “We are going down!” She then felt the car falling; the sleeper car hit the creek only a few seconds later.

In the darkness, Shepherd worked to find her way out of the berth. She didn't know it, but the cars were upright when they landed; this meant that the lowest cars were in the creek itself, where drowning was a distinct danger. The top car, however, had landed with the heater burning; it was only a few minutes before this car caught fire. It took very little time, then, for the cars and the locomotive to burn.

Many of the survivors worked with a rescue crew from Ashtabula, removing the others from the cars. Eventually, they were forced back by the heat of the fire; they didn't realize that many of those rescued had been slowly submerged in the creek - the frozen creek that had been melted by the fire. Many of those still trapped in the lower cars drowned when the water flooded into what was left of the No. 5 train. Daniel McGuire remembered a woman who was trapped, with the fire making its way quickly toward her. In her desperation, she begged the rescue crew to amputate her legs so that she could be pulled out of the train. Nobody could reach her, and McGuire watched her burn to death. Engineer Peter Levenbroe, McGuire’s friend, who was in the second locomotive, was among the victims, having been crushed in the locomotive as it fell into the creek. He was still alive when found, but he died en route to the hospital.

William Alsell was among the rescuers that night. Not only did he smash windows to reach the victims, he worked frantically to keep them safe from the fire and the water. Thieves, unfortunately, had also joined the able-bodied crew, and were busy robbing the wounded and dead.

The site of the tragedy wasn't clean for more than a week. The railroad sent more than a hundred and fifty men to investigate, the bodies were never identified in total. Some of the bodies could only be identified by jewelry - jewelry that had been overlooked by the eager thieves. A funeral was held at two churches the following year, on January 19. Afterwards, the unclaimed bodies were buried in Chestnut Grove Cemetery.

At an inquest to determine responsibility for the accident, the jury came to the decision that the railroad was solely to blame; that the bridge contained many defects; that the company had never given the bridge a complete inspection. The jury found that the company had used the wrong heaters, rather than the type that would have been extinguished when the train derailed. The jury also pointed the finger at the fire department, since it concentrated more on rescuing the victims than on putting out the fire. (Rumors still abound about the fire department's lack of action; it is thought that the members of the department simply had no idea how to put out a fire such as this, and decided to try to save as many people as they could.)

Railroad man and millionaire Amasa B. Stone, Jr., was the designer and builder of the bridge. For the rest of his life, he rejected responsibility for the tragedy; he claimed that an act of God had been the cause.

Charles Collins, who inspected the bridge only ten days prior to the accident, was very different in his reaction. It was said that he "wept like a baby" when he saw the site of the accident. It was said that he had been made to give a positive report on the state of the bridge. (Had Collins taken a closer look on that last inspection, he would have seen that some of the sections were badly out of alignment, and he would have known that the bridge was in imminent danger of causing the sort of tragedy that did, indeed, occur.) The luckless Collins shouldered much of the blame. A few hours after testifying on the disaster, he went into his bedroom, put a pistol to his head, and pulled the trigger.

Though Amasa Stone staunchly denied any and all responsibility for the wreck, pointing fingers everywhere but at himself and hanging Collins out to dry, his end was no better. He was viewed as a murderer by the public, and his health began to deteriorate. In 1883, he locked himself in his bathroom and shot himself through the heart.

What about the ghosts?

They have been seen and heard - but not in the creek bed, as one might think. It is the Chestnut Grove Cemetery, the final resting place for those unclaimed dead, where apparitions have been seen. They wear 19th-century clothing; some carry carpetbags. Screams can be heard occasionally.

Not far from the mass grave of the unknown victims, Charles Collins is buried in a mausoleum. His ghost, too, has been encountered in the cemetery, near his burial place. As in life, unable to forgive himself for the tragedy, he is still suffering today. Often, he appears with his face in his hands, sobbing. "I'm so very sorry," he weeps, just before disappearing.