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Engineering Tragedy: The Ashtabula Train Disaster

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The Ashtabula train disaster and bridge collapse was the worst train disaster of the 19th century, claiming the lives of 97 people. The engineering and structural failures that caused the collapse of a bridge that stood for over a decade, also took down the most luxurious train of the day, “The Pacific Express #5.” The accident happened during a raging blizzard sending the luxury train crashing 70-feet into a river gorge and costing the lives of 97 people. The disaster shocked the nation, yet it’s a story that’s been lost in the pages of history. This disaster became a rallying cry for regulation and change between big business, the public, and the federal government.

In a strange twist of fate and intrigue, the bridge disaster also became the backdrop to the still unsolved murder of Charles Collins, the railroad’s chief engineer. It also contributed to the eventual suicide of millionaire Amasa Stone, the president of the railroad and the designer and builder of the bridge.

This documentary explores the events surrounding the disaster that occurred in Ashtabula, Ohio on December 29, 1876. We will cover the engineering, construction, and collapse of the Ashtabula Bridge; the treacherous conditions that hampered the rescue attempts of trapped passengers; the heroes surrounding this event, including America’s first African-American telegraph operator; and the ensuing investigations that prompted new national safety standards for the railroads. After this disaster public outcry forced states to pass new bridge building standards and inspection laws that apply even today.

This documentary is very cinematic and uses actors and historians to bring this story to life.

The documentary was produced for PBS and has received very positive reviews for its recreation of the disaster and storytelling.