A bridge in Ashtabula, Ohio, collapses on this day in 1876, causing a train to fall into a gorge, killing 80 passengers.
The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway brought passengers into Chicago from points east. On December 29, a snow storm forced one of the trains (two locomotives and 11 coach cars) from New York to Chicago to creep along at less than 10 miles per hour. Visibility was greatly reduced, but at 7:30 p.m., the crew was able to see their approach to the bridge over Ashtabula Creek.
The engineers were unable to see, however, that the 152-foot iron trestle bridge wouldn’t be able to handle the weight of the train as it proceeded slowly across. Just after the first locomotive made it to the other side, the bridge collapsed under the weight of the train. The other locomotives and coach cars uncoupled and plunged down the deep ravine into the creek below, causing several explosions and a large fire.
Of the 80 people who were killed, 19 bodies were burned beyond recognition. Another 68 passengers were severely injured, but 52 others managed to walk away with minor or no injuries. An inquiry into the accident did not produce any definitive answers, in part because the train’s chief engineer, Charles Collins, killed himself two days after it began. Five years later, the designer of the bridge, Amasa Stone, also committed suicide.
This disaster was the deadliest rail accident in the United States to that time. An 1867 accident on the same line killed 43 people in New York.