The Ashtabula Bridge Disaster of 1876 - Chapter 11
Darrell E. Hamilton
The funeral procession lined up in front of the churches which was lined up in the following order: Marshal Fassett and Coroner Richards; Clergy in sleighs; Bearers in sleighs; Assistant Marshal; Masonic Association on foot; Mayor and City Counci l in sleighs; Friends and family of deceased in sleighs; St. Joseph Temperance Society; Ashta-bula Band; Ashtabula Light Guard; Ashtabula Light Artillery and citizens generally. With relatives of the deceased, out of town spectators and the press from different parts of the country, the procession formed was over a mile long. By some accounts of the funeral pro-cession, the line formed was several miles in length containing an estimated several thou-sand people. The procession was probably the largest and most impressive that has ever been seen in the area.
The funeral procession, held on January 19, 1877, was started at 3:00. The lines were formed from the center of the city on Main Street. Several feet of snow had been softened by the raising temperatures making it difficult to walk in the packed down snow in the streets. Later that evening, the rain would come.
At the cemetery, on top of a hill, a large lot had been purchased by the railroad. Among the bare trees with the fitful wind sweeping through the bare branches of the trees, a large square lot had been cleared of snow. Nineteen graves were dug to bury 22 bodies in 19 coffins. Some bodies and body parts were not only buried as unrecognized but were actually buried without a name. The names of some passengers were never known. Three coffins remained at the depot in hopes that relatives coming in out of town for the funeral could identify the bodies. They were buried a few days later with the rest
of the victims at the cemetery. Many body parts were placed together in several coffins.
The entrance to the graves, at the time, was situated on the south side of the cemetery. A roadway had been cut through the heavy banks of snow. The long procession filed in. The coffins were taken into the cemetery by members of the Masonic Order who had agreed to act as pall bearers.
The burial service was opened by the Episcopal Church and was read by Rev. Mr. Moore. A selection of Scriptures then read by Rev. Mr. McGiffert of the Presbyterian Church. Ministers from the rest of the churches in Ashtabula proceeded with their words after which the Masons proceeded with their ritual.
The coffins were then lowered into the graves. The coffins contained the bodies and body parts of men, women and children. Among the unrecognized dead buried that day was the famous spiritual hymnwriter and his wife, Rev. Philip P. Bliss.
The moans, groans and crying of the people in attendance towards the end of the funeral service became almost overwhelming. Most of the cries were coming from the citizens of Ashtabula. They were crying over the men. women and children that most did not even know. The reality of the death and destruction, for many, had just sat in with the site of the coffins being lowered into the ground. Grown men who weren't usually subject to out burst of emotion that day seemed to be unable to control their emotions.
Once the services were closed, it was nearly an hour before everyone got out of the cemetery. By the time they reached the city it was nearly nightfall. Trains were waiting to take most of the out of town people back to their homes.
The citizens of Ashtabula went back to their homes in their quite little village of solitude to think and ponder over the day's events. For three weeks, Ashtabula was the center of attention in North America. The people of Ashtabula were ready to go back to their peace and solitude that the people of this once quaint village so much embraced.
The Ashtabula Bridge Disaster of 1876 - Chapter 12
Darrell E. Hamilton
The number of persons killed that fateful day will never be completely known. The persons killed that day has been quoted as high as 200 the day of the disaster and as low as 87 a few days after the disaster. The official count was 92, but was it the right count?
Bernhart Henn, a Buffalo resident and passenger conductor for the railroad for over five years, testified before the coroner's jury. He testified as to the number of passengers on the train. He testified as to the numbers of tickets he had in his possession which num-bered 160. The number did not include the railroad employees, at least three railroad officials and children. Even though he testified that there was only a few children on board, many children were found in the wreckage, alive and dead. He also could not be certain as the number of employees of the railroad that were on the train. The count did not include a black man who hopped the train to catch a ride in a baggage car. The ticket number did include the young black couple riding in one of the passenger cars. How many others had hopped the train for a free ride? He could not be certain of the number of employees as he never saw all the employees while he was on the train. He was not certain how many passengers had gotten off the train. After leaving Buffalo, he never took a passenger count. His count as to actual paying passengers was only his estimate through the tickets he held.
The following is the coroner's verdict which is partially reprinted:
"The fall of the bridge was the result of defects and errors made in the designing, constructing and constructing it. That a great defect, and one which appears in many parts of the structure, was the dependence of every member for its efficient action upon the probability that all or nearly all the others would retain their position and do the duty for which they were designed, instead of giving each member a positive connection with the rest, which nothing but a direct rupture could sever. That the railway company used and continued to use this bridge about eleven years, during all which time a careful inspection by a competent bridge engineer could not have failed to discover the defects. For the neglect of such careful inspection, the railway company alone is responsible. That the responsibility of this fearful disaster and its consequent loss of life rests upon the railway company, which, by its chief executive officer, planned and erected this bridge; that the cars in which the deceased passengers were carried into the chasm, were not heated by heating apparatus so constructed that the fire in them would be immediately extinguished whenever the cars were thrown from the track and overturned; that their failure to comply with the plain requirements of the law places the responsibility of the origin of the fire upon the railway company; that the responsibility for not putting out the fire at the time it first made its appearance in the wreck, rests upon those who were first to arrive at the scene of the disaster, and who seemed to have been so overwhelmed by the fearful calamity that they lost all presence of mind, and failed to use the means at hand, consisting of the steam pump in the pumping-house and the fire engine Lake Erie and its hose, which might have been attached to the steam pump in time to save life. The steamer belonging to the Fire Department, and also the Protection fire engine, were haul-ed more than a mile through a blinding snow storm, and over roads rendered almost im-passable by the drifted snow, and arrived on the ground too late to save human life; but nothing should have prevented the Chief Engineer from making all possible efforts to extinguish what fire there remained. For his failure to do this he is responsible. The persons deceased, whose bodies were identified and those whose bodies and parts of bodies were unidentified came to their death by the precipitation of the aforesaid cars, in which they were riding, into the chasm in the valley of Ashtabula creek, left by the falling of the bridge, as aforesaid; the crushing and the burning of cars aforesaid, for all of which the railway company is responsible."
The Ashtabula Bridge Disaster of 1876 - Chapter 13
Darrell E. Hamilton
In Chapter eight of this train disaster series, I wrote about the chief engineer of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad, Charles Collins and his suicide. But, was it really suicide?
In the past, everyone took it for granted that Charles Collins actually committed suicide. However, what was never made public at the time was the autopsy reports. Many theories on why the autopsy reports were never released to the public have been made. Probably the best theory is of scandal. The train disaster had enough scandal already floating around. The design of the bridge, the robbery of the victims and why the fire was not put out was just a few of them. There needed to be closure on the disaster especially for the railroad. The railroad did not want the autopsies released on Charles Collins. The railroad company probably thought that his suicide would take the public's attention off the railroad. And, it did work somewhat.
The autopsy reports were found about the turn of the century. However, the reports or any part of them were not released until about 25 years ago.
One of the reports was made by a Dr. Stephen Smith, surgeon to Bellair and St. Vincent's Hospital, New York, and professor of jurisprudence at University Medical College, New York. He signed the 14 page report June 3, 1878.
He wrote: "On the 26th day of April, 1878, I carefully examined the skull certified to be the late Mr. Collins, Cleveland, Ohio, formerly chief engineer of the Lake Shore & Michi-gan Railroad. " At the end, Dr. Smith summed up his conclusion.
He found Charles Collins to be right-handed. Th body was found in bed where the deceased was accustomed to sleeping. Collins clothes lay on the chair exactly where he always placed them.
The body was found in a natural position, the left arm outside the bed clothes, the hand resting on the left thigh. A navy revolver was lying loose in his hand.
The pistol was eleven inches long, a six shooter with three chambers empty. Near it was a razor, and a Derringer pistol fully loaded.
Collins' head was turned to the left side and there were two wounds in the scalp, corresponding to the opening in the skull. A flattened bullet was found nearby and the pistols were recognized as Collin's own.
The doctor's conclusions were in his own handwriting: "Preceding facts properly collected and weighed, justify the conclusion that this man was not a case of suicide."
"Place of entrance of the ball, the position of the left hand partially enclosing the handle of the pistol, the undisturbed state of the body and bed clothes are entirely incon-sistent with the theory of suicide for the following reasons: The place of entrance of the ball, and position, the undisturbed state of the body and bed clothes, are entirely incon-sistent. I, a right handed man, (as was Collins), could not without the greatest effort, and by placing his head in the most constrained position, and strongly everting his head, had brought the muzzle of the revolver eleven inches in length, to bear upon the point of en-trance of the ball in the direction it took."
Smith also said if there had been shock and unconsciousness, the victim would not have composed himself and remained quiet in bed until he died. Mr. Collins came to his death by a shot inflicted by other hands than his own." the doctor wrote.
Another physician, Frank H. Harington M. D., also wrote a nine page decision on the cause of death. It reached the same conclusion: "It was not a suicide."
The autopsy report stated that a flattened bullet was found nearby and the six shooter had three chambers that were empty. What happened to the two other bullets? What the autopsy failed to mention, that I could find, was the fact that there was at least one bullet hole was found in the walls. Was Charles Collins trying to defend himself ? A person trying to commit suicide would not have to use three bullets to kill themselves.
Who really murdered Charles Collins? Was it a family member of one of the victims of the train disaster.? Maybe it was a surviving victim of the train disaster. Then again, maybe the railroad had him murdered to take some of the heat off of them. Then again, maybe his murder did not have anything to do with the train disaster. We will more than likely never know.