The Ashtabula Train Disaster

(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).

 

Below, the Chestnut Grove Cemetery.

The mass grave of the unidentified victims and Charles Collins’ crypt lie within a few feet of each other.


This towering marker stands over the mass grave of the unknown dead.

 

Many believe that this site is haunted by the spirits of the unknown dead, as well as that of Charles Collins.

In Spring 2001, the Northeast Ohio Ghost Research Team shot their own photos of possible spirits here. This day, none were found.

 

 

Below are close-ups of some of the inscriptions on the mass grave marker

The crypt of Charles Collins.

Interestingly, both the long-shot photo of the victims’ monument and Collins’ crypt came up “burnt-looking” in the photos developed later.

UPDATES & SUBMISSIONS

Amasa Stone’s Gravesite

The bridge’s designer and architect, Amasa Stone, is buried several miles away from the disaster, at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland Heights. His ostentatious marker is similar to the mass grave marker at Maple Grove.

A closeup of the inscription on Amasa Stones’s marker. His date of death, as it appears on the tombstone, is actually seven years after the disaster. 

His inscription further reads:

“The memory of the just is blessed.”

More Hauntings

In its Halloween 2002 feature, Cleveland Digital City discusses additional ghost legends associated with the Chestnut Grove Cemetery.  Lisa Galloway writes, “Reports of wraiths near here are many… witnesses mention families dressed in period dress — always warm winter clothes — wandering together, often carrying carpetbags and baskets. Screams are heard late at night, many visitors say a charred odor pervades the grounds and near Collins’ crypt a man can be seen weeping bitterly, crying out over and over, I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry.’”  Freaky. 

For her sources, Ms. Galloway cites Dead Ohio <applause> and Railroad Extra, a great website dedicated to U.S. railroad history and folklore.  Since Dead Ohio certainly did not report of such ghostly happenings, we checked out Railroad Extra.  We could not find anything specific on that site regarding the cemetery hauntings Ms. Galloway writes about in her article (or any other hauntings related to this grim event).  So, if anyone can substantiate those tales, please write us and share your stories.

The Bottom of the Bridge

Below, a great shot of the Ashtabula Bridge looking south, as taken in the summer 2002 by Fast-Freight, a railroad engineer. 

Here’s a photo of a fascinating find by Fast-Freight–An old rail.  Although not yet confirmed, it could be a piece of the original rail from the accident. 

Ashtabula Bridge Memorabilia

Here’s a rare and interesting vintage postcard of the aftermath, submitted by Fast-Freight.

Below are some stereoviews of the disaster, as generously submitted by Fast-Freight.  Stereoviews are  older versions of those toy Viewfinders, meant to give the viewer a 3D image.

The photographs were taken on December 30th, 1876, the day after the accident.    They are credited as being taken by Blakeslee & Moore of Ashtabula.

Other Sources

For more information about the Ashtabula train tragedy, check out:

The Ashtabula Railway Historical Foundation

The Ashtabula Train Disaster of 1876–article by Darrell E. Hamilton

The Ashtabula Bridge Disaster–Featuring the sad memoirs of Philip Bliss, who perished along with his wife in the accident.

The Corpse in the Cellar and Further Tales of Cleveland Woe–an on-line excerpt from John Bellamy’s excellent, well-researched compilation of local true crime and morbid tales.  This book is one in a series of four, and–strictly in terms of research and writing quality–ranks above Chris Woodyard’s overrated, fluffy books on Ohio hauntings and legends.  Before you beg to differ, read his books first.

10/9/05: The Ashtabula ghosts are apparently getting more creative, and technologically savvy, in spooking the daylights out of ghost hunters.  As Nick explains:

 

My friends and I were daring enough to go to the Chestnut Grove Cemetery over a cold October weekend. There were 3 of us on the first night.  We only stayed for about 10 minutes because my friend got really scared.  After we were there, we were all sitting in my friend’s car, and the windows got fogged up.  A bear face was drawn on my friend’s window.  She said she had never seen it before, and it was so perfect that it could not have been done by hand.

 

While we were sitting in her car, my cell phone made a weird noise, so I looked at it and it said “Calling Mom 2:56, 2:57, 2:58″ and the minutes kept moving up saying I was talking to her.  So I was saying hello? hello? but no answer.  So I tried hitting END on my phone but nothing happened.  I flipped it down and now it said I was talking to “unkown.”

 

The next night, we saw a LOT of shadows and heard a lot of noises.  We also saw some crazy lights.  We looked inside Collins’ Mausoleum, and saw a pop can in there from the 40′s with the peel back lid…it was really weird.

 

1/02/05Joe and his son visited the site on the anniversary of the Ashtabula Train Disaster to do a little ghost investigation, and shares their surprising results:

 

My son and I went to the trestle on the Anniversary of the Train Disaster. We took pictures and recorded E.V.P. at the site, hoping to see or hear something. Of course, we saw little and heard less. But,  my son did see what he described as a woman. But, it wasn’t until I got the pictures developed and listened to the E.V.P. that I was in shock. There were several pictures of ghost phenomenon and a voice on our tape. The voice called out for a woman named Martha. Not knowing the names of the people who died in the Disaster, I went online to find out. To my surprise, there were two women named Martha who died in the wreck. A month earlier, we went to Cedar Grove cemetery to take pictures of the monument. On that film we found orbs. All this is for my sons school report–I hope he gets a good grade for all the effort we’ve put in.

 

 5/27/02: Here’s some input by one very learned and observant reader

 

Hello,
Was looking at your neat Dead Ohio web page and being a RR engineer checked out your Ashtabula train disaster, great page! but you have the wrong bridge photos on your page. It’s the next RR bridge to the North in the valley that you want photos of. The photos you show are the ex NKP  ex N&W , NS bridge which is single tracked which I have been on trains over many times. The LS&MS bridge which the accident occurred on  became New York Central then Penn Central then Conrail and now CSX  was originally a single track bridge but was double tracked in the New York Central era and the abutments are now different since things were widened. The story has always fascinated me and being a railroader and collector I have always looked for articles and photo’s of the disaster. I’m not trying to criticize your article just wanted to let you know that you want the next bridge North.
Sincerely,
FAST-FREIGHT   

 

Thanks, Fast-Freight.  I also believe that this story is very fascinating and so historically significant that its accuracy is much more important than a few “cool” photos.  Therefore, I will be pulling the current bridge photos until the location  is confirmed.  I will then post new photos of the “proper” bridge to ensure the integrity of this page. 

 


Related posts:

  1. Republic Ghost Train
  2. River Styx Bridge
  3. Tinker’s Hollow
  4. Submission: Moonville Tunnel

4 thoughts on “The Ashtabula Train Disaster

  1. Me my mom and my cousin went to Chesnut Grove Cemetery today around 2:30pm and we heard a bunch of what sounded to be like gun shots every so often. We left for a while then returned about an hour before sunset walked around the cemetery for a while paying our respects. As we were sitting in the car I decide to take some pictures and in almost every picture I took there was orbs. The one that shocked us the most was the last picture I took turning on to Main Ave because there was at least 100 orbs in the photo and I know that it could not be dust or anything because I keep my camera lens clean at all times.

    • The gunshots where most likley coming from across the ravine. There is a Police firing range over on the other side and there was active training going on that week. I am looking forward to getting down to the cemetary as soon as I can. I would like to check it out.

  2. I got a lot of evp’s there was really strange and they were clear. I went 10/30/2014 I don’t think the dead should be bothered and this evp thing was a little scary.

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