Ashtabula Train Disaster of 1876
This is an illustration of the Ashtabula Bridge following the train disaster in 1876.
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.
A reporter for the Cincinnati Gazette described the scene thusly:
The haggard dawn which drove the darkness out of this valley and shadow of death seldom saw a ghastlier sight than was revealed with the coming of this morning. On each side of the ravine frowned the dark and bare arches from which the treacherous timbers had fallen, while at their base the great heaps of ruins covered the hundred men, women and children who had so suddenly been called to their death. The three charred bodies lay where they had been placed in the hurry and confusion of the night. Piles of iron lay on the thick ice or bedded in the shallow water of the stream. The fires smoldered in great heaps, where many of the hapless victims had been all consumed, men went about in wild excitement seeking some traces of loved ones among the wounded or dead.
During the late nineteenth century, railroad accidents were commonplace. Railroad companies built track quickly and cheaply, hoping to reap tremendous profit once the track was opened. Railroad workers also commonly made mistakes, contributing to the large number of deaths and injuries. In 1873, 210 people died in railroad accidents in Ohio, with an additional 398 people suffering injuries. Amazingly, rather than seeing a decline in the number of deaths and injuries, they actually increased throughout the late 1800s. In 1900, over five hundred railroad passengers died in accidents. An additional seven thousand people suffered injuries. The principal reason for the increases was the amount of railroad track in operation. Railroad companies built thousands of miles of track in Ohio during the late nineteenth century, providing more opportunity for accidents to occur.
Despite the Ashtabula bridge collapse, the Howe-truss bridge remained popular, primarily due to its relatively cheap cost. Still, railroad companies began to feel pressure from their customers to provide a safer means of travel. By 1888, more than two thousand iron bridges existed in Ohio. The state had fewer than nine hundred wooden bridges still in use at this time.