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Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster

Page history last edited by Steve Escher 15 years, 3 months ago



Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster






        This Ashtabula bridge disaster memorial lithograph was drawn by W.J. Morgan & Co., of Cleveland, Ohio.             

                           Creative Commons license: Public Domain





The railroad bridge crossed over a gorge of the Ashtabula River in Ashtabula, Ohio, just outside the town center.  The double track railroad bridge crossed seventy feet over the river below. At the location of the bridge, the river is shallow at 3-4 feet.  The latitude and longitude of Ashtabula is 41.873N and -80.785W.  You can see a satellite image of the current bridge from Google Maps here: Ashtabula River Railroad Bridge.  The Ashtabula River drains into Lake Erie at Ashtabula, Ohio. See Ashtabula River on Wikipedia here.




The Ashtabula River railroad disaster is the deadliest bridge collapse in United States history.  The bridge was built from 1863 and 1865 and collapsed in 1876, after eleven years of use.  The bridge design was a Howe truss supported by two abutments (see "Before the Disaster" in the lithograph above).  The designers of the bridge later commited suicide.



Details of the Collapse


The bridge collapsed December 29, 1876, at 7:28PM, during a snowstorm that left two feet of snow and produced 40 mile per hour winds.  As the train crossed the bridge, the entire span collapsed, sending eleven railcars and one locomotive into the creek below. The first locomotive, "Socrates," barely completed crossing the bridge, and was the only car that did not fall. The conductor of the Socrates watched the rest of the train fall and sounded his whistle to alert people at the station.


The train was a Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway train, The Pacific Express, no.5.  It was travelling with eleven railcars, two locomotives, and 159 passengers and crew.  Many of the passengers were travelling due to the Christmas holiday.  Some railcars hit each other mid-fall while some fell first and were crushed by cars landing on top of them. After the collapse into the icy river, the oil lamps and coal heating stoves in the railcars ignited, sending the railcars up into a blaze.


Of the 159 passengers and crew, 64 were injured and 98 died, of which 48 were unrecognizable. Many were burned alive in the flames. The cars were left to burn, even after the fire department arrived, and there was some question of why the railroad officials had firemen help the wounded that were already out of the wreck rather than put out the fire.  Community members that had rushed to the scene saw survivors in the wreckage and used pails to try and douse the fire.  Although the train was only 100 yards from the station, the responders to the accident were unable to help much due to the storm and the location of the wreck.




About the bridge design


Bridge had two abutments, on one each side of the gorge, which supported a 150 feet long wrought iron Howe Truss.  The Howe Truss was very strong over long spans and was very popular for railroad bridges because of this strength and because it was much easier to construct than competing designs of the time (1,2). The Howe Truss was usually built using a combination of iron and wood for the different elements (1).  The Howe Truss was named for William Howe, who developed the Howe Truss in the 1840s with his brothers-in-law, Amasa Stone, Azariah Boody, and Daniel Harris.  Iron railroad bridges were still uncommon in the 1850s; most were wooden or a combination of iron and wood.  At the time the bridge was built, structural analysis was still developing, standard design specifications did not exist, and engineers were largely unaware of the phenomenon of material fatigue and brittle fractures (2).


Amasa Stone, president of the Cleveland, Painsville, and Ashtabula Railroad, designed the concept for the bridge. It is unclear why he chose to make the bridge completely of iron, however he was known to have a dominating personality and may have wanted to innovate (2). Also, his brother was a partner in the company that was providing the iron beams for the bridge.  Joseph Tomlinson prepared the detailed specification drawings. Stone and Tomlinson later testified that Stone's intention had been to make a first-class bridge.  Tomlinson and Stone disagreed about some specifications for the stress allowable on compression elements that led to Tomlinson's resignation or firing: Tomlinson wanted a smaller allowable stress than what Stone preferred (2). Tomlinson also later testified that the iron that came from the mill was not the full size originally specified, but that it was used anyway.



Sequence of Events


The train was moving west, towards the Ashtabula station at 12-15 miles per hour.  See Bridge Disaster Timeline for a detailed account of the night's events (3).



Cause of the Collapse


Investigating engineers found that the failure occured in the second and third panels of the south truss, with either the top chord or the compressive brace initiating the failure.  The legislature's investigating committee determined that the load was appropriate for the bridge, but that due to the faulty design a collapse would have occured eventually.  Investigating engineers also determined that the design was faulty in several aspects.  First was the Howe system itself. While the engineers concluded that it was possible to make a safe Howe Truss bridge, they found that the Ashtabula bridge was excessively heavy.  The compressive diagonal braces were different sizes mixed together. The separate I beams were not tied together continuously, the end bearings were faulty, and there were no positive mechanical connections between the braces and the angle blocks to prevent movement of the ends of the braces.  The compressive top chords were also of mixed sizes and not tied together correctly. They were bent by train weight and were only braced laterally at every other panel point.  The x-bracing in several areas was inadequate.  The angle block castings should have been continuous.


The engineers concluded that the failure was not due to defective iron or sudden cold weather. Rather, the bridge collapse was blamed on bridge construction that was not in line with well established engineering principles.  The specific cause of the collapse was a fatigue crack that originated at a small air hole and grew with repeated stress over eleven years. The strength of that component of the bridge was reduced by the cold weather and the weight of the train caused a brittle crack to form, in turn causing the bridge to collapse.


A glossary of bridge construction terms can be found here.



Collapse Outcomes


The media began referring to the bridge collapse as "The Ashtabula Horror."  By Jauary 18, a wooden replacement bridge was in place and carrying rail traffic.  January, 17, 1877 Ohio state legislature appointed a joint committee to investigate the cause(s) of the accident. An engineer also conducted an investigation on behalf of the coroner's jury in Ashtabula. A third investigation was conducted on behalf of the American Society of Civil Engineers. All three investigations came to similar conclusions, however the final ASCE investigating engineer, Charles MacDonald, was the only investigator to notice the flaw in a cast iron block. He concluded that the faulty iron lug had an air hole which reduced its strength by half.  MacDonald and later engineers determined that the bridge probably would have continued service without issue if there had been no casting flaw, though the legislature's investigating committee (that didn't see the faulty iron block) had previously claimed that the bridge would have eventually failed under any circumstances.


Investigating committees in essense blamed Amasa Stone for the failure, never mentioning the iron casting flaw in their judgements (2).  Charles Collins, chief engineer for the railroad, commited suicide after testifying for the legislature's joint committee.  Six years later, Amasa Stone also commited suicide.  By 1888, cast iron was forbidden for use in bridges.  The entrepreneurial tradition of bridge building by railroad companies was called into question, and the joint committee drafted recommendations including design codes, design loads, allowable stresses, minimum strengths, expert design review, construction supervision, and periodic inspection by engineers (4). However, these recommendations were not passed into law.  Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway lost $495,722 due to the collapse (5).  The most important lasting impact was realizing the need for standard specifications for bridges, the need for qualified consulting engineers, and the need for an evaluation on the reliability of iron castings (4).





1. History of Bridge Building, Howe Truss information.

2. Gasparini, Dario A. (1993).  Collapse of ashtabula bridge on December 29, 1876. Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities (ASCE) (2)7, 109-125.

3. Bridge Disaster Timeline, Ashtabula Railway Historical Foundation.

4. Delatte, Norb. Maintenance and Management Lessons Learned from Bridge Collapses. Prepared for the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting, 2007. Paper #07-2306. Abstract and retrieval information here.

5. Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway. Corporate Stockholder Report, 1877. Retrieved May 5, 2008, from http://home.alltel.net/arhf/bridge.htm.

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