The Ashtabula Train Disaster of 1876 - Chapter 4
Darrell E. Hamilton
The fire was out of control as buckets of water were useless against it. People screaming could be heard all over the valley and up the banks into the village of Ashtabula.
The famous spiritual song writer, Rev. Phillip P. Bliss was also on board the train that fateful night. Earlier that evening, with his wife at his side, they were singing to the passen-gers the last song that he had written , "I Know Not The Hour".
Rev. Bliss had fought in vain to save his wife to no avail. He could not free her. He emerged from the flaming wreckage smoldering. He turned and then looked back at the wreckage. He took a deep sigh and then said in a quivering voice, " I will perish with my wife." He then walked back into the flaming wreckage to be with his wife, forever.
The howl of a poor wounded dog that was on board the train, echoed through the valley. The dog's howl became intensely pitiful. It was at last saved but was severely burned. The poor dog was the last survivor pulled from the wreckage.
The horrid cries and wails turned into groans. The last voice coming from the wreckage was a woman's moans. Then all the moans and groans stopped. The only thing that could be heard was the crackling of the wood in the fire. The stench of burning flesh could be smelled all over the valley and was beginning to seep over into the village.
The injured and dying were helped up the steep snow covered steps by a brigade of men. The nearest structure, other than the engine house located on the bank, was the "Eagle Hotel". The first eleven of the injured were taken there.
The first eleven were the "unlucky survivors". The Eagle Hotel was a horrid place with a dirty bar room. The rooms had never known carpet. The little rooms were just large enough to hold a bed and wash stand. There were no stoves in the room. The beds consist-ed of filthy sheets and miserable straw ticks.
Other injured passengers were taken to better hotels. When the rooms were filled, they were laid on the couches in the lobbies. Some were laid on the counters of stores. The lucky ones were taken to private homes. Some ended up in the Ashtabula House still standing at the corner of West 46th St. & Main Ave.
The injured who were unable to walk were placed and tied to a sleigh and pulled up the side of the banks. They were the last of the injured to be brought up.
As the fire began to burn itself out, darkness began to fill the valley. The dead lay in every direction amid the driving snow. A skull lay by itself amid a blackened heap, whiten-ed by the fire. Other bodies lay with their eyes burned out of their skulls. Heaps of bodies, mostly women and children, lying in the sleeping coaches were still burning. The delicate form of a mother lay beside her little child. Both were reduced to mere black lumps that scarcely resembled human form. Arms, legs and skulls lay strewn amidst the wreckage. Other bodies lay completely cut in half with no sign of the other half.
By midnight, most of the survivors had been brought up from the Gulf. By 1:00 a. m., the railroad officials arrived from Cleveland with five surgeons. Ten village doctors and sur-geons worked all night on the injured in a small house. Broken limbs were usually ampu-tated as medicine was still in its infancy.
Some of the more severely injured were taken to one location where ten surgeons crowded into a small house. Among the severely injured were the engineer and fireman from the second engine whom surprisingly survived the fall to the bottom of the gulf in their locomotive.
As the surgeons worked all night, the crowds began to disperse and the streets grew deserted. The bodies at the bottom of the Gulf lay alone in the darkness, unguarded.
The Ashtabula Train Disaster of 1876 - Chapter 5
Darrell E. Hamilton
Not long after midnight, quietness had begun to settle down upon the disaster scene. The streets were all but deserted with the exception of some wolves. These were no ordi-nary wolves. Ordinary wolves would not go near a fire. A fire that still burnt in places with a blue flame. A fire that had cooked skulls so severely that brains were seeping from the eye sockets. Fire, darkness, or such horrid death did not frighten these wolves. These wolves were more greedy than any other breed of wolf or vulture. These were the human wolves of Ashtabula. Actually, it is an insult to compare the thieves of the night to a wolf. A wolf has more pride and dignity to their own than what the thieves of the night did to the dead and living that night.
The thievery had actually begun on the living earlier that evening.
A young man, who had just lost both mother and sister, was suffering from four broken ribs and a severe gash to the head. As he looked up and saw a few men standing up on the banks watching him, the thought of robbers crossed his mind. He had a valuable watch, a present from his father, and two money purses. One contained fifty dollars in bills and the other a few dollars in change. He also carried his dead mother's jewelry. As he thought of thieves, he turned around with his back to the crowd and dropped his watch down inside his shirt. One of the money purses he placed in an inside vest pocket and the other was left in the pocket of his pantaloons. His mother's jewelry was carefully placed inside his under garments.
He was helped to the top of the bank by a kindly gentlemen who was doing his best to assist the injured and dying. At the top of the bank he handed him over to another man. He had been taken a very short distance when the man that was helping him rammed his hand inside the boy's vest in such a manner as to cause him severe pain. The pain was so intense that he passed out. He was left lying in the snow in the dark. When he regained conscious-ness, he had been robbed of almost everything including his train ticket to California. His mother's jewelry which he had thought he had cleverly concealed was gone. The only thing that the thieves had overlooked was his gold pocket watch. He was at last taken to a hotel where he had the sad duty to telegraph his father in California the horrible news of his mother and sister.
Other conscious survivors were also robbed in the same manner. However, the uncon-scious survivors were not spared of anything of value. Some even had parts of their cloth-ing removed.
One young man, who had a huge splinter of wood from the car he was riding in driven through his shoulder, was robbed of $300 in the Eagle Hotel where he lay. Another man had his boots taken off and stolen from him while he lay unconscious. Anyone who was wearing any article of clothing of any value was subject to thievery.
Once all the living had been taken out of the Gulf, the dead were left alone. The human vultures began to descend upon the wreckage. Almost everything that wasn't destroyed by the wreck or the fire was taken. Some of the thieves actually wore black masks to hide their identity from the other thieves.
One gentleman, whose body was not charred by the fire, carried a pocket book inside his clothes firmly attached to his body. When his body was found, his pocket book was found beside him, empty. It had contained $7,000.
Scarcely anything of value was left after the thieves had descended on the wreckage. Trunks containing the wardrobes of new brides were taken along with the trunks of the wealthy. Some of these trunks belonged to the survivors in the village. For some, the trunks contained all their worldly possessions.
Most of the charred bodies were not identified. Had the thieves not robbed the bodies of their jewelry, most could have been identified and not buried in Chestnut Grove Cem-etery as one of the unrecognized dead. Rev. Phillip P. Bliss, the famous spiritual hymn writer, was among the unrecognized dead.
The fire burned all night while the thieves worked at the bottom of the Gulf and the doctors worked all night trying to save the survivors.
The terrible destruction was not fully realized until the next morning. Many went to bed late that that night waking up in the morning thinking it was an awful dream while others in and around Ashtabula had not heard of the awful destruction.
The train wreck was not fully realized in the dark. Everyone, including the people who had been at the scene the night before, were about to feast their eyes on the worst train disaster in United States history.