The Ashtabula Train Disaster of 1876 Chapter 6
Darrell E. Hamilton
As daylight descended down upon Ashtabula, the extent of destruction was just fully
being realized. Even the people who had worked all night trying to save the survivors never fully realized the extent of the destruction.
One of those people that worked all night to help the survivors was Fred W. Blakeslee. Fred was a member of the Ashtabula Voluntary Fire Dept. Even though the fire chief at the fire department near the depot never gave the orders to put out the fire out, a call went out to the voluntary fire department in the business district of Ashtabula.
Fred Blakeslee was just 21 years old when he struggled through the snow drifts down Lake Avenue with the other firemen to bring the heavy pumper to the train wreck. Even
though no orders were given to use the pumper, most of the fireman stayed and worked valiantly all throughout the night rescuing people and assisting with the injured. Over half
the people rescued that night were rescued by those firemen.
When daylight came, Fred Blakeslee went home to get some rest. Fred was one of the younger members of the fire department. He had also just opened, that year, his photo-graphic studio on Main St. at the site of the present Masonic Temple building. He was al-ready making a name for himself for his outstanding work.
After a few hours of rest, Fred arose thinking the night had been just been a bad dream. Then he glanced over at the clothes he wore the night before. Covered in blood, he knew it was all too real.
Sensing the opportunity to get some unusual pictures of the wreckage, he got his horse and sleigh ready to go back down to the wreckage. He placed in the sleigh his bulky camera, plates and sensitizing materials, essential for crude photography of the time.
Know as the "collodion" process, a glass plate was first coated with collodion and when still wet was immersed in a silver nitrate solution. In making a picture, the wet plate was exposed to the light much as in present day photography. The image made on the plate was brought out by developing in a reducing agent such as ferrous sulfate. Prints were made by reversing the process. This was the same method used by Matthew Brady, famous Civil War photographer.
Once he arrived back at the disaster scene, Fred clambered down the icy steps with his bulky camera and photograph equipment to the pumping station just west of the bridge. After setting up his camera, Fred made several attempts to record history that day. Because of the bitter, freezing cold that day, the photographic solutions kept freezing. He had to take his plates and photographic solutions in a switchman's shanty to warm them suffi-ciently so they would not freeze while he was outside taking pictures.
The pictures shown of the disaster in the previous chapters of this series, were taken by Fred W. Blakeslee, a photographer and fireman, within 24 hours of the disaster. The picture of the bridge before the disaster was also taken by Fred. Another photographer did arrive from Cleveland later.
Fred W. Blakeslee pictures were probably the most distributed pictures of the disaster scene as he was the first photographer to take pictures. Even though the pictures are old, thousands of the pictures were distributed world wide. I have personally found copies of these pictures in Columbus, Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri, California and England.
Fred Blakeslee continued his photography business for many years. He was also a voluntary fireman for many years. He became a well known photographer. After his retire-ment, his business was handed over to his son, Robert S. Blakeslee. Fred W. Blakeslee died in 1928.
Even though some of my short sketches on the disaster have been graphic at times, try-ing to convey the seriousness of the destruction without it would be difficult.
These stories on the train disaster have come from many different resources. The book on the train disaster written by Rev. Stephen D. Peet in 1877 has been an excellent source. Private letters by Norris Simons, ticket agent for the railroad, on duty the night of the disaster was another.
Many of the survivors of the disaster found it difficult to talk about the disaster for many years while others never talked about it. Some of their stories can be found in the Star Beacon many years later. However, most of the survivors weren't from Ashtabula. I have found their stories in newspapers around the country such as in New York, Philadel--phia, Cleveland, Chicago and as far away as California. Some of those stories I haved shared with you.
The Ashtabula Train Disaster of 1876 - Chapter 7
Darrell E. Hamilton
While Fred Blakeslee photographed the disaster scene, H. P. Hepburn, mayor of Ashta-bula at the time of the disaster, was already at the scene disaster. He immediately ordered policemen to stand guard at the steps going down to the gulf as to protect the scene from looters. He also had a policeman stationed in the Gulf at the disaster scene. Some of the survivors that were able to talk the next day, told Mayor Hepburn about them being robbed He immediately ordered an investigation. Even though most of the items were never recov-ered, Some of the survivor's belongings were recovered.
By noon that day, the policeman were having a difficult time keeping back the large crowds that were gathering from all over the county. To complicate matters worse, train loads of people began to arrive from Painsville, Cleveland and other distant locations as curiosity seekers. No one was sure who was in charge of the disaster scene, the railroad or the village. The mayor himself was an employee of the railroad as an assistant engineer.
As the men worked to remove the bodies and parts of bodies of men, women and child-ren, the crowds grew larger. The body and parts of bodies were taken up the bank on sleighs. They were taken to the freight house that was turned into a temporary morgue. Thirty-six bodies were placed in boxes in the freight house. The charred bodies, torsos and other body parts were stacked on the floor. Some of the bodies were burned so severely that their bones fused together in an outstretched manor. Their bones would have to be broken to be placed in a burial box. Some of the bodies were so swollen and distorted that no box available could hold their forms.
From the book, The Ashtabula Train Disaster by Rev. D. Peet
comes the following passage:
"A little child was there, beautiful in death; the delicate little foot hid beneath the closely fitting shoe, the nicely tapered limbs, the graceful, lovely form, the tasteful dress, the hands so tiny and so touching in their shape, one could but love the little thing. Even the stranger wanted to take that sweet, that precious child, and clasp it to the heart; but no, that awful gash, that cruel blow had stricken all the beauty from the lovely face. If now, the mother would kiss her darling child, she must press her lips upon vacant air, hoping that, as she pressed that loved form to her aching heart, an angel spirit might catch the found caress."
A few of the bodies found contained no broken bones or any signs of visible injury. The conclusion at the time was that death was attributed to smoke inhalation.
Mayor Hepburn ordered that all valuables, that were over looked by the thieves, be gathered and taken to the morgue. The Mayor ordered guards to watch the men that were gathering the belongings of the victims mimimizing any thievery that might take place.
With hands, feet, rakes, hoes and shovels, relics were fished out of the Ashtabula River. Everything was preserved from bits of clothing to pieces of jewelry. Anything and every- thing which gave trace of the passengers were gathered and placed in the make shift, guarded morgue.
The railroad and the village were doing their best to help preserve any relic that might help identify any of the victims. At the same time they were hoping to return some of the belonging to the survivors.
By late afternoon, the press from New York, Chicago and other distant cities had
arrived. A press conference was set up at the station house with the railroad officials. Some of the railroad officials including the station agent found it very difficult to answer ques-tions without having tears in their eyes. In front of the press, the station agent got down on his knees and cried like a baby. Something he had never done as man. The events over the last 24 hours would haunt him the rest of his life.
The Ashtabula Bridge Disaster of 1876 - Chapter 8
Darrell E. Hamilton
Charles Collins, chief engineer of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad, never gave the bridge his approval and called the bridge experimental. He left the responsibility up to the President of the Railroad as to whether it should be built or not. Even though Collins suggested that type of bridge not be built, the president of the railroad ordered it to be built anyway. During the bridge's erection, the engineer, Mr. Tomlinson, differed so much with the president that he resigned his position. The thought of resignation had also passed through Mr. Collins' mind. The thought would come back to haunt him eleven years later.
Charles Collins had worked that fateful night in freezing water up past his waist to save people in the wreckage . He saw first hand the destruction, death and mangled bodies of men, women and children.
Charles Collins had worked for the railroad for thirty years. He took pride in his work. Under him, the railroad and bridges were kept in pristine condition and inspected regular-ly.
Mr. Collins was born in Richmond, New York in 1826. He was from an old and highly respected family. He graduated from Renssaeler Polytechnic Institute. He had worked in various parts of New England and had charge of some important work on the Boston and Albany railroad. He came to northeastern Ohio in 1849 to take charge of locating the C. C. C. & I. railroad. He was then superintendent of the Painsville & Ashtabula railroad. When the Painsville & Ashtabula Railroad consolidated with the L. S. & M. S. railroad, he was given the position of chief engineer.
Days after the disaster, Charles Collins was in a weakened state of mind. He had wept like a baby in front of the press. His family and friends were concerned about him over his weakened state of mind.
Charles Collins was a gentle, sensitive man. He was filled with so much emotion over the disaster that he was subject to outbursts of grief.
On New Year's day, he was staying at his wife's parent's house on the east side of Ashtabula. That morning he stepped outside the house to get some air before breakfast. The coachman who was passing by the house, wished Charles a happy New Year. He returned the greeting then went inside to sit down to breakfast. As he sat down at the breakfast table, emotion began to over take him. He burst into tears and covered his face with his hands. Once he was able to overcome his emotions, he said to his wife, "John bid me a happy New Year this morning, but how can it be a happy New Year to me?"
Charles Collins state of mind grew worse as the days passed. He tendered his resigna-tion the Board of Directors. With tears in his eyes he said, " I have worked for thirty years, with what fidelity God knows, for the protection and the safety of the public, and now the public, forgetting all these years of service, has turned against me."
The resignation was not accepted. He was assured that his view was entirely unjust and unworthy by the board.
Charles' state of mind grew worse. He had stopped eating and sleep became almost non-existant.
Two days later, on a Wednesday, Charles was scheduled to go on an inspection. His trusted assistant, Mr. Brewer, was to go with him.
That night, Charles packed his traveling bag in preparation of his trip. He prepared for bed and carefully laid his clothes out. Unable to sleep, the train disaster undoubtedly weighed heavily on his heart. His wife and family were in Ashtabula at her parents house where he and his family spent a great deal of time.
At his home on St. Clair Street. in Cleveland, he had came in late. The colored man servant, who had quarters to the rear of the house, was unaware that Charles had came home.
As the thoughts of the train disaster ran through his mind, he probably lie there com-plicating what entered his mind several times before. At the peak of his insanity, he sat up in bed, picked up his revolver, placed the revolver in his mouth with the barrel pointing toward the roof of his mouth, and pulled the trigger or so it was thought at the time.
Mr. Brewer, who was to go with Charles on the inspection, never heard from him. After two days, Mr. Brewer thought he might be in Ashtabula with his family. After getting in touch with his family in Ashtabula, he learned that he was not in Ashtabula. Becoming con-cerned, he went to Charles' house on St. Clair St. Upon arriving, he asked the colored servant if he had seen Mr. Collins. When the colored servant stated that he had not seen him in days, they went inside to the bedroom where they found Charles' body with the gun still in his hand.
Charles Collins was 51 years old at the time. He is buried in Chestnut Grove Cemetery in Ashtabula.