The Ashtabula Diaster (Review)

The Ashtabula Diaster (Review)

eing a railroad guy, you’d have think I’d have heard of this one. But no, I was casting about on Project Gutenberg and fell over it (HERE). And so now I know a little more about the world. That is, a little more of its bad and terrible history.

It was December 29, 1876 and a pair of locomotives were lugging eleven passenger cars of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway towards Ashtabula, Ohio. One hundred and fifty nine passengers were aboard. As they crossed the bridge just short of the station, it gave way, throwing everything (save that lucky first locomotive) seventy nine feet into an icy ravine. Not only was there the horrific impact, but cars landed atop other cars, crushing them. And as they hit, the heavy iron stoves (used to heat the cars) flew down their lengths like massive cannonballs, killing people by the scores. As the townspeople arrived, those same stoves began to smolder in the wreckage. But the railroad men on the scene gave conflicting orders (get the people out and ignore the fire) and everyone played pass-the-buck, so at the end, the cars were burning and people were dying horrifically, trapped (and even impaled) in the wreckage (all while two fire engines idled on the high bluffs).

And if that wasn’t enough, people were actively robbing the survivors as they pulled them to safety, stealing money, watches and jewelry.

And this part seems even more ludicrous – after it was all done, after the last of the groaning survivors were pulled out and everyone had retreated out of the ravine, no attempt was made to secure the wreck. It was just left to burn down over night, which resulted in the dead being looted even more. None of this, of course, speaks well of Ashtabula, which comes off as sounding like a den of pirates.

This book was the work of the Reverend Stephen Peet, way back in the 1870s, just after it happened. If anything, it’s just as graphic as the accident books we get today, describing what happens to people (and even children) trapped in burning wreckage. It’s also interesting for the aftermath – nowadays, people write tell-all how-I-would-have-done-it books to generate modest infamy (which isn’t that far from fame). But back then, two of the people found guilty in the inquest blew their brains out.

A very interesting account, if you can get over Reverend Peet’s religious diatribes (after all, he is a man of the cloth and this is free advertising). I’d recommend a download for you heartier readers who are curious and like disaster stories. Because, ugh, this was a whopper – ninety two deaths made this the worst rail disaster of its time.