Artifacts Related to 1876 Ohio Train Tragedy Still Turning Up

January 3, 2017

It’s been 140 years since a train disaster killed nearly 100 people when a bridge collapsed over a river in far northeast Ohio, but Dave Tobias is still looking for artifacts from the tragedy.

As a young boy, Tobias lived near the site of what became known as the “Ashtabula Train Disaster” and got hooked on looking for artifacts that sometimes washed out of the riverbank after a spring thaw, The Plain Dealer reported. He used a gold-panning technique and later a metal detector, eventually finding thousands of pieces.

Now 60, he still searches every year, though it has become tougher to find pieces. Tobias said they provide a real feel of history.

“It adds a personal touch to the thing instead of it just being inanimate. … You think how badly these poor people suffered,” he told the newspaper.

About 160 travelers and crew were on board the Pacific Express that Dec. 29 as the 11-car train traveled from Buffalo to Cleveland in a blizzard. Some died when the train’s rail cars dropped more than 70 feet or piled up, and others were burned in the fiery wreckage. About half of those killed were unrecognizable, and dozens more were injured in the gruesome scene.

Flaws in the design and composition of the iron bridge were blamed for the collapse, which led to changes in standardizing bridge design and mandated inspections of railroad bridges.

Stories of heroism and help were also part of its legacy, with area residents trying to aid survivors as they could.

And then there was Charles B. Leek, the country’s first black telegraph operator. Leek stayed at his post in the railroad depot around the clock for two days with no break as he sent out news of the tragedy, pleaded for help and fielded families’ inquiries, said Len Brown, of Canton, who has studied the bridge collapse and has been raising funds to make a documentary about the disaster.

Like Tobias, Brown has visited the river site and found various artifacts. Coins turn up, as do personal items, glass and train parts.

“The personal belongings – a watch, a piece of an earring or ring – it’s very sobering to know this belonged to somebody who was connected with such a huge disaster,” Brown said.

Another artifact collector, 76-year-old Richard Mullen, of Ashtabula, said the design, patina and location of the objects helps identify them as being from that era, and finding them carries emotional weight.

“Should I be doing this?’ I ask myself,” he said. “But they’re inanimate objects, they’re not parts of people, and that’s the way I view it.”

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