(Orig. Published 9/2002)
This tragic event is the origin of the nearby Haunted Chestnut Grove Cemetery, where many of the train accident victims are buried. The accident was caused largely by the collapse of the railroad bridge. Legend states that the ghosts of the victims return to the bottom of the bridge on the anniversary of the disaster.
The bridge was owned by the Lake Shore and Michigan railroad, and was the joint creation of Charles Collins, Engineer, and Amasa Stone, Chief Architect and Designer. Collins did not approve of Stone’s bridge design, calling it “too experimental.” However, he reluctantly approved its construction due to pressure from the company and outside sources.
On the evening of December 29, 1876, the Pacific Express was traveling over the fated bridge, carrying approximately 159 passengers and crew members. Only the first engine made it to the other side, just as the bridge started to collapse. The rest of the train broke away and plummeted to the bottom of ravine below. Approximately 92 men, women and children were killed. Most did not die from the fall itself, but were literally burned alive while trapped inside the crushed cars–the result of oil lamps and stoves which ignited the fatal fire.
The accident occurred after a heavy snowstorm, making it difficult for rescuers to reach the victims. The town firefighters and citizens were ill-equipped and simply unprepared to deal with this kind of disaster. The rescue attempt failed miserably.
Approximately 25 of the dead were burned beyond recognition, and were buried in a mass grave in Chestnut Grove Cemetery.
After testifying before an investigative jury, Charles Collins quietly went home and shot himself in the head. He was also buried in the Chestnut Grove Cemetery, several feet from the mass grave.
Amasa Stone committed suicide approximately 2 years later. Stone was held partly responsible for the disaster by the same investigative jury before which Collins had testified, and was publicly scorned for many years (Stephen D. Peet, The Ashtabula Disaster, Chicago: J. S. Goodman-Louis Lloyd & Co., 1877).