Gravetender Hubby, Gravetender Toddler and I recently went on vacation to visit family in Ashtabula, OH. The weather was great, the air was sweet and we had a wonderful time at Walnut Beach on the shores of L. Erie. We also made a visit to Chestnut Grove Cemetery (I just can’t help myself). One of the oldest cemeteries in Ashtabula, Chestnut Grove is the home of the unidentified victims of the Ashtabula Train Disaster – a horrific train disaster that occurred on December 29, 1876.
The Ashtabula bridge designer, Amasa Stone, was the President of the Lake Shore Michigan Southern Railroad – Cleveland and Erie Division from 1856 to 1867. During his Presidency, he decided to take a well-established wooden bridge pattern (the Howe Truss) and use it as the pattern for an all iron bridge. He designed this bridge without the approval of any competent engineers with iron bridge experience and against the protest of the engineer who was hired to draft the drawings.
Charles Collins, the Engineer in Charge, was the man responsible for overseeing bridge inspections for the entire line. Unbelievably, Stone did not include Collins in any aspect of the bridge’s design, construction, or erection. Perhaps that’s the reason Collins took such little interest in the bridge. Placed in a difficult situation, Collins was charged with the maintenance and care of a long, all iron bridge when he knew little about its unique technical requirements. A conscientious and sensitive man, the grief over this tragedy almost overwhelmed him. There were reports he wept bitterly when he saw the aftermath of the crash.
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 (90 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, 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 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-preparednessof 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. Twenty years later, in Ashtabula’s Chestnut Grove Cemetery, a monument was erected to all those “unidentified” who perished in the Ashtabula Railroad disaster.
Charles Collins, among others, was forced to testify before an investigative jury about the accident. Days after completing his testimony, Collins was found dead in his bedroom of a gunshot wound to the head. Originally, Collins was believed to have committed suicide out of grief and feeling partially responsible for the tragic accident. A police report at the time suggested the wound had not been self-inflicted, however no real investigation was attempted due to raw nerves surrounding the tragedy. Recent documents discovered in 2001 revealed, thorough examination of Charles Collins’ skull, the conclusion that he had indeed been murdered. He was entombed in his own mausoleum yards away from the victims’ mass grave.
Amasa Stone was found partly responsible by the investigative jury and committed suicide seven years later.
Here are the pictures I took at Chestnut Grove Cemetery: