Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Ashtabula Train Disaster

Site of the Ashtabula Train Disaster, Ashtabula, Ohio
The modern bridge stands where the disaster occurred
“Are you sure you know where you are going?” Zech asked as I parked at Cedarquist Park that sits along the eastern bank of the Ashtabula River.

“I know exactly where we need to go,” I laughed. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been here.” Though it had been four years since I had last visited the spot, the location was still fresh in my mind. With Zech in tow I had returned to the region to do a little exploring and to get better pictures of some of the places I had visited during my first visit to the Ashtabula region of Ohio.

“We’re going to have to take a little walk through the woods,” I continued. We followed a path through the woods and as we got closer to our destination I could hear the sound of falling water. We made a short detour to visit a waterfall near the spot of the disaster. As we were photographing it the sound of a train passing above could be heard, but from our location we could not see it.

Waterfall near the disaster site
After we finished we walked over to the Ashtabula River and jumped down the bank onto the rocks that jutted out of the shallow river. Standing here we could see the modern bridge that crosses the river. On the night of disaster the icy waters of the creek were waist high, but on this day it averaged about one foot deep, though in some spots it may have been deeper, but not by much.

It was at this spot on the cold, snowy, windy night of December 29, 1876, one of the worst disasters in Ohio’s history occurred; a disaster that would be known as “The Ashtabula Horror.”

From all accounts the bridge was a scary sight to behold. The iron bridge was bolted and braced together for a length of one hundred and fifty feet and had little support as it spanned seventy feet over the Ashtabula River.

A blizzard raged outside as the residents of the community settled in for the day. Forty mile an hour winds blew snow wildly around. Snow was already three feet deep and due to the drifting it was over six feet deep in spots. The temperature was roughly ten below zero on that fateful day.

Roughly 7:30 that evening the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway Train Number 5 crossed the bridge. The train consisted of two engines pulling eleven cars. The first of the two engines managed to make it safely across the bridge before it collapsed, allowing the rest of the train to fall into the gorge. It did stay connected for a short period of time, but soon broke loose and fell into the gorge.

Memorial to the unidentified dead
Chestnut Grove Cemetery
While the collapse was terrible enough, the wreckage caught fire from the stoves in the passenger cars. In the aftermath of the disaster, stories of heroic acts arose from the brave citizens who attempted to rescue the trapped souls. Sadly stories of people who performed evil acts of stealing from the dead also were reported.

The result was ninety-two of the one hundred and fifty-nine passengers and crew were killed. A number of the passengers were burned so badly they could not be identified. Among those unidentified bodies were the remains of the famous hymn writer Philip Bliss and his wife, Lucy. The story of Philip Bliss can be found herePhilip Bliss.

Please see the note at the end of this article about the number of passengers and those killed as a result of this disaster.

Little remains of the disaster site. The river flows under a modern bridge that still carries trains. Without knowing what the site looked like in the aftermath of the disaster it is almost impossible to imagine what the scene of horror appeared to the survivors and rescuers.

Zech and I left the park and headed south on Main Avenue before turning onto Grove Drive. Following the road, we were soon entering Chestnut Grove Cemetery. We followed the small signs along the roadways to the memorial which stands atop the hill overlooking the cemetery. We found a spot to park that would allow other vehicles to pass safely and walked over to the large monument.

Base of the memorial
The obelisk sits atop the graves of the unknown victims of the disaster. On one side is a listing of some of the known victims, but who were not able to be identified. Another side of the memorial states the disaster and the date. The monument was unveiled on May 30, 1895.

Chief Engineer Charles Collins, who had inspected the bridge ten days before its collapse,  was present during the disaster’s aftermath and worked in the waist deep freezing waters of the river to rescue victims. In the days after the disaster, Charles would often break down and publicly cry about the disaster. He attempted to resign his position but the railroad refused to accept it. Charles supposedly committed suicide shortly after giving his testimony to the investigative jury.

Modern sources have denounced the suicide theory. One of the doctors who first examined Collins’ body questioned it, stating that it was not a case of suicide. Who killed Charles? Was his death a result of his testimony against the railroad? Or was he killed by one of the disaster’s survivors? Or maybe he was murdered by the family of one of the victims? While the answer will never be known, it is known he is buried in the mausoleum located about fifty yards away from the train disaster memorial.

Some claim to see him and other shadows in the area around the memorial, but on this sunny day I found nothing out of the ordinary. These same people are those who claim the sounds of the train disaster are still heard from time to time, but as I wandered about the area I heard nothing out of the ordinary.

Base of the memorial
It notes Philip Bliss by name but not his wife, Lucy
Amasa Stone, the railroad mogul who had designed and built the bridge refused to accept any of the blame for the bridge collapse claiming it had been an act of God that destroyed the bridge. Stone even went as far as claiming that the act of God set the train on fire because there could be no way the stoves in the passenger cars could have caught the wreckage on fire. Stone remained defiant until the end. Seven years after the disaster, Stone committed suicide and was buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.

After saying another short prayer for the dead, I left the area in silence, remembering not only the famous Pennsylvanian taken in his prime, but all of those who lost their lives on that cold winter's night.

If you make the journey to the disaster site and the memorial in Chestnut Grove Cemetery, I do ask you visit it with the reverence and the respect that both areas deserve.

Base of the memorial
A note about the number of people onboard and the number of victims: The exact number of victims will never be known, but most sources place the number at ninety-two. I’ve seen the number of victims ranging from eighty-three to ninety-eight, but ninety-two seems to be the most repeated number.

The exact number of people onboard the train that evening also has been debated. I’ve seen numbers ranging from one hundred and fifty-nine (which is the most repeated number) upward to three hundred people. The number one hundred and fifty-nine comes from a guess based upon the number of tickets in the conductor’s possession. Even the memories of the survivors add confusion to the people onboard. Some claim that the cars were mostly empty while others remember the train as being packed. The total passengers onboard does not take into consideration any railroad employees onboard or others onboard who did not have to purchase a ticket for one reason or another.

The exact number of the unidentified dead is truly unknown. I have found newspaper articles that list nineteen to thirty unidentified bodies. Most sources list twenty-five unidentified bodies, which is the number of names on the monument in Chestnut Grove Cemetery and the number that seems to be fairly consistent with most early sources regarding the disaster. These names are people known to have been onboard but were burned beyond recognition, so they were not able to be positively identified.

Many sources claim that there were only nineteen unidentified victims, despite there being twenty-five names listed on the monument. I was able to discover a source for this confusion: there were twenty-two unidentified victims buried in nineteen graves at Chestnut Hill Cemetery in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. The nineteen graves that were originally dug is, I believe, the source for there only being nineteen unidentified victims. The other three unidentified bodies were buried after the original mass burial.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Philip Bliss: Hymn Writer

Rome Cemetery, Rome
PA Historical Marker for Philip Bliss
The Bliss Cenotaph is large white stone
In the background
I’ve always wanted to visit Rome.

And one cold April morning I arrived in the small community of Rome - that is - Rome, Pennsylvania.

Located along Route 187, the Rome Cemetery is marked with a familiar blue Pennsylvania Historical Marker that memorializes the local resident for his contributions to musical history. Parking in the church lot across the road from the cemetery, I stepped out into the cold and crossed over to read the blue marker. Only once I took in the information presented on the sign did I wander towards the large stone in the middle of the cemetery.

The stone is a cenotaph: the people memorialized on the stone are not buried here. The remains of Philip and Lucy Bliss are buried in a common grave in Chestnut Grove Cemetery in Ashtabula, Ohio.

Philip was born in Clearfield County near the present day town of Penfield, the son of a Methodist pastor. Shortly after his birth his family moved to Rome. The house Philip grew up in still exists and serves as a museum.

One of the sides of the memorial
A side note: There has always been some debate on the location of Philip’s birth. Some sources place his birth at Rome, but the most sources place his birth just east of Penfield on July 9, 1838. Even the memorial in the Rome Cemetery states that he was born in Clearfield County. I believe early writers assumed that because Rome was his boyhood home that he was born here. A Pennsylvania Historical Marker noting his birthplace stands alongside Route 255 east of Penfield.

He had very little formal education, receiving most of his lessons from his devout parents, teaching him mostly from the Bible. During his childhood Philip’s father passed his love of music on to his son.

When he was roughly six years old, Philip’s family moved to Trumbull City in Ohio. A couple years later the family returned to Pennsylvania, settling in the town of Tioga. At the age of ten he first heard a piano being playing and upon hearing it he realized that he wanted to pursue his love of music.

 Philip left home at the age of eleven and for the next five years he worked in various lumber camps. The following year he made his first public confession of his devotion to Christ at the Baptist Church in Cherry Flats, Pennsylvania.

At the age of seventeen he moved to Bradford (town) to finish the requirements to become a teacher and the following year he was teaching at the school in Hartsville, New York. In 1857, his life would change when he met J.G. Towner, who ran a vocal school in Towanda. Towner gave Bliss his first formal vocal lessons. That same year Philip would attend a musical convention in Rome, Pennsylvania, where he first met William Bradley, a writer of sacred music. Bradley convinced Bliss to devote his life to writing music for the Lord’s service.

The following year (1858), Philip returned to his childhood home and started teaching at the Rome Academy, where he met Lucy Young, whom he married the following year. They would have two sons, George and Philip.

By that time, Philip had enough information and ability to become a traveling music teacher. Taking with him his melodeon, he and his old horse traveled from community to community sharing his love of music with his students.

Base of the Bliss Memorial
It tells of their deaths that happened
Due to the Ashtabula Train Disaster
In the summer of 1860, with money given to him by his wife’s grandmother, Philip attended the Normal Academy of Music in New York. Graduating from the six week intensive study program, Philip was officially recognized as a music teacher. He did not settle at one shool, but continued his route of teaching in the various communities in the region.

While Philip enjoyed teaching, his passion was turning to composition.

In 1864, the Bliss family moved to Chicago, where Philip worked at a variety of musical institutes becoming a noted teacher and singer. That same year he wrote the composition Lorai Vale which would be published the following year. While the piece is not one of the sacred pieces Philip is known for, it was a recognition of his talent and provided a starting point in his life.

Also in 1864, Philip did a two week concert tour with Mr. Towner. Amazed at the success of the venture, he planned a second tour but this one was a complete failure. The one positive thing that came out of his failed tour was a job offer from a Chicago based music house, Root and Cady Musical Publishers.

In 1869, Philip’s life would take a step in following his life’s calling. One evening he stopped at a revival being held by Dwight L. Moody, a well-known evangelist of the time. Philip was soon leading the singing in the meetings. When Moody left for England in 1873, he asked Philip to go along, but he declined the offer. Moody would gain international recognition while traveling throughout England.

That same winter, Moody wrote again to Bliss asking him to once again to consider devoting his life and works to the Lord. In a prayer meeting, Philip decided that this was his calling and he turned completely to missionary work, using his royalties to finance his missionary endeavors.

What Philip didn’t know was he only had a short time remaining. He would join forces with Major Daniel Whittle and together they lead a number of revival services throughout the Ohio Valley.

On December 29, 1876, Philip’s successful career came to an end. The Bliss’s had spent the holidays with family back in Rome, Pennsylvania. Philip was planning on returning to Chicago in January to work on some new compositions, but received word that they wanted him to return sooner. Leaving his two sons with his mother, the couple started home towards Chicago.

Disaster would happen when the train they were riding in fell into the Ashtabula River in Ohio. Flood waters had weakened the wooden structure and while the first engine made it across successfully, the rest of the train fell into the river when the bridge collapsed. The wreck was soon on fire.

Philip managed to crawl through a window to safety, but when he realized that Lucy was trapped, he returned into the flames to be with her. They both perished in the blaze.

Pennsylvania Historical Marker honoring Philip Bliss
Among the things that survived the wreck were the words for the only song still sung by congregations that Philip did not write the music to: (I Will Sing of) My Redeemer. 

Other famous hymns Philip wrote the music and/or the lyrics to include: Almost Persuaded, Hallelujah, What a Saviour!, Let the Lower Lights Be Burning, The Light of the World Is Jesus, Whosoever Will, Wonderful Words of Life and It Is Well with My Soul.

As I stood there I reflected upon the love Philip had for his wife. Philip had made it safely out of the wreck and, had returned into the burning car in an attempt to free her. While some may question his sanity, I couldn't help but marvel at the love he must have had to be willing to return to his wife's side knowing he would be sacrificing his survival to be with the woman he loved.

The Rome Cemetery is located just north of town along Route 187. Parking is available across the road from the church. Their cenotaph is one of the largest stones in the cemetery and is in a straight line behind the Pennsylvania Historical Marker for Philip Bliss. As with all cemeteries, if you choose to visit Rome Cemetery, please be respectful during your visit.

While Philip's story ends here I cannot tell it without talking about the Ashtabula Train Disaster, which can be found here: The Ashtabula Train Disaster.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Along the Way: Bedtime for Bonzo

Grave of Bonzo
Hearthside Rest Pet Cemetery
Hidden just southwest of the junction of Interstates 79 and 90 among the rolling hills of Elk Valley is Hearthside Rest Pet Cemetery. I stepped out of the vehicle and looked around the peaceful spot located on the banks of Elk Creek.

Despite the peacefulness of the area, it felt strange that I was visiting a pet cemetery. In my journeys around the state, this was the first one I purposely stopped at to search for a specific grave. Yet on this occasion I sought out the final resting place of a celebrity buried here among the beloved pets on this sacred piece of land.

Looking at all of the similar markers, I knew I had before me an adventure just to find one particular stone in a sea of them. I unfolded the piece of paper that had vague directions to the grave I sought. After walking a couple of rows, a truck pulled in and the caretaker walked over and asked me if I needed help.

“I heard that you have a celebrity buried here.”

“Oh, you’re searching for Bonzo,” he observed. “He’s a couple more rows over.” I followed him to the final resting place of the cemetery’s most famous resident, a chimpanzee known to the world as Bonzo.

Bonzo's rise to fame occurred in 1952 when he starred in the movie Bonzo Goes to College. The film about a chimpanzee who goes to college and plays football also starred Maureen O’Sullivan and Edmund Gwenn.

In researching the life of Bonzo, I discovered that the Bonzo in Bedtime for Bonzo was not the Bonzo who is buried in the Hearthside Rest Pet Cemetery. There were actually two different chimpanzees who starred as Bonzo.

The first Bonzo was a chimpanzee named Peggy. Yes, the male chimpanzee in the movie was protrayed by a female one. Peggy had performed in a number of the Jungle Jim movies and was supposed to appear in a series of Bonzo movies. Sadly Peggy, her stand-in, and two other chimpanzees were killed in a fire in 1951 shortly after the release of Bedtime for Bonzo. Some places state that Peggy is the chimpanzee buried here, but this is not the case.

The second Bonzo (the one buried at Hearthside Rest Pet Cemetery) was a male chmpanzee whose actual name was Bonzo. He starred in the second film in the series, Bonzo Goes to College, During his time in the spotlight Bonzo toured the country, appearing on a number of television specials. As far as I can determine it appears he never appeared in any other movies after starring in Bonzo Goes to College.

Sadly Bonzo’s fame soon faded. He was placed in a circus during his later years, which promoted his celebratory status as a means of bringing people in to see the carnival. While the circus was in Erie in 1969, Bonzo became ill and passed away. A local vet offered to have him buried in this peaceful location.

While talking with the caretaker, I discovered that over 3100 pets are buried here, along with some of their owners. In the time spent talking with him, I gained a newly found appreciation for pet cemeteries. After taking a couple of minutes to explore the cemetery, I left it, wiping away a tear at the thought of the pets I’ve had over the years.

Finding Bonzo’s grave is a little bit of a challenge. Parking in the small lot,look towards the cemetery. There is a small cluster of trees in the center of the cemetery. Bonzo is buried halfway between these trees and the pines to the left as you are looking into the cemetery in almost in a straight line between the two.

As with all cemeteries, please be respectful of the area.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Sugarloaf Massacre

Monument for the Sugarloaf Massacre
Let me tell you a story that happened on the Pennsylvania frontier in 1780. it is a story that I thought I knew well and it goes like this....

It starts in early September when a group of militia were patrolling the frontier searching for raiding Indians and Tories. The men were a part of Captain Van Etten’s militia led by Captain Daniel Klader. They were camping along the Little Nescopeck Creek when they were ambushed by a group of Indians led by Seneca Chief Roland Montour. In the chaos, fourteen men were killed and a number of them taken captive.

However, I made the mistake of letting a good story get in the way of the truth and the more I researched this incident the more I realized I didn't know the story like I thought I did.

But, that story was what first brought me to the monument located along Walnut Road, just east of the community of Conyngham.

“So where exactly are you planning on parking?” mom asked as I came to a halt in front of the monument. It had been a couple years since I first visited the monument and had returned on a recent trip through the region to take pictures of the memorial.

“Right here,” I replied as I put the four-ways on and jumped out of the vehicle. Walnut Road, which the monument stands next to, didn’t seem very busy during this visit and I silently hoped that traffic stayed away until I was finished.  The plaque on the marker states:

Near this spot occurred
The Sugarloaf Massacre
On September 11, 1780 a detachment of
Captain John Van Etten's Company
Northampton County Militia
Resting at the spring was
Surprised by a band of Indians
And Tories led by Seneca Chief
Roland Montour

Beneath these words is a listing of fifteen names of the men who were victims of the massacre.

In the woods behind the monument is a grave marker for a Captain Daniel Klader. The simple stone is inscribed “Daniel Klader, Captain, Van Etten’s Co., Northampton Co. Militia, Died 1780.” The first time I visited the location, I followed a path to the nearby stone. The last two visits (once in the summer and once in the early fall) I was unable to locate the stone due to the undergrowth.

I first came across a mention of the Sugarloaf Massacre while doing research for other massacres that occurred within the state. It was only a small snippet of information which I recorded and set aside. A couple years later, I ran across that bit of information and began researching the history of the massacre, preparing to visit the location where it occurred.

What I didn’t know at the time, but was soon about to discover, was the information I first discovered about the massacre was incorrect.

The plaque on the monument
Searching through the regional histories, I found more information. The only correct detail in the original tidbit that I had found was the period of time leading up to the massacre.

In September 1780 a large band of Indians descended the Wyoming Valley before crossing into present-day Sugar Loaf Township. This raiding party is believed to be the same one that attacked Fort Rice (near present-day Turbotville) on September 6. A side note: I found a couple sources claiming that a group of Tories were also with the raiding party, but most of the sources I have at hand state it was an Indian raiding party. I cannot verify which one is correct..

Also in early September, a group of militia moved into the region. This group of militia was made up of thirty-one men. Another side note: the total number of the militia seems to be in debate. Like many of the details of the massacre this number may or may not be correct. Sources list the total number of men in the group as being anywhere from thirty-one to forty-one in strength: the most common number tends to be thirty-one men.

The sources all agree that on September 11, 1780, the group of militia were ambushed and defeated along the banks of the Little Nescopeck Creek. Lieutenant Myers was among the captured and managed to escape two days later.

While discovering what little has been recorded about the Sugarloaf Massacre, I found myself with a handful of questions to which I cannot find a definite answer.

The first question that arises is who was Captain Daniel Klader? I’ve only come across two histories that mention Klader and a handful of newspaper articles. It appears that Captain Daniel Klader mysteriously appears in one of the retellings of the massacre.

I searched through the "Pennsylvania State Archives Digital Revolutionary War Military Abstract Card File" and failed to find him. I did find a Jacob Clader who commanded a later group of Northampton Militia. I believe that one of the men who told the story mistakenly identified Jacob as Daniel and claimed that he was killed during the massacre. This mistake continued to be handed down with each telling and was never corrected until it became a part of regional lore.

If Daniel did not exist, then who was in charge of the group of militia? Sipe records in Indian Wars of Pennsylvania the man being in charge of the group was a Lieutenant Myers who was from Fort Allen. In Stone’s The Poetry and History of Wyoming, he records portions of Lieutenant John Jenkins who also states that Myers was in charge of the group of thirty-three men. Looking through the "Pennsylvania State Archives Digital Revolutionary War Military Abstract Card File," I found that there was a John Moyer, who was part of the Northampton Militia and while no rank is listed, I believe that this is the Lieutenant Myers mentioned in the histories.

Commemorating the 207th anniversary of
The Sugarloaf Massacre
Enevelope part of my personal collection
The next question that comes to mind is who was all killed in the massacre? Searching through the state archives digital "Revolutionary War Military Abstract Card File" I came up with two names listed as killed at the Sugarloaf Massacre, but actually had survived.

The first is Peter Crum (also spelled Croom). On his file card it is recorded that he served through early 1781 as a substitute. During the chaos of the attack he more than likely fled the scene and in returning to civilization went back to his normal life -- not back to the militia.

I also found a Peter Shelhamer in the files as surviving the massacre, but was unable to discover anything more about him.

I couldn’t help but question those responsible for the massacre. I have already questioned who made up the raiding party, but I had to now question who was leading the party. The plaque states that Roland Montour was responsible for the raiding party. Apart from the information on the plaque, I found no other early references stating he was leading (or even a part of) the raiding party.

As I stood there reading the plaque on the monument, I came to fully realize that this was no mere snippet of history, but an important piece of Pennsylvania's history as it reflected the violence that was occurring in the wilds of Pennsylvania at the time.

This was just one of the conflicts that was occurring in the region that had reached its apex with the Great Runaway in 1778, along with the butchering of 226 people in what is now known as the Wyoming Massacre (also in 1780) at present day Wilkes-Barre. These men had been deployed into an area still suffering from the horrific events of that massacre to bring peace to a violent region.

In my mind's eye I could see the dense growth that the militiamen had to make their way through so long ago; they had finally found a nice clearing in which to rest along the Little Nescopeck Creek. The searching for the raiding party had taken its toll upon them as they traveled and for one instant, they allowed their guard to drop as they rested. It was at that moment the raiding party discovered the militia and ambushed them. In the chaos, the men fled, tossing aside their weapons and packs to lighten their load as they fled. The dead were scalped and left where they fell, while they tied the hands of those men they captured.

The monument is located along Walnut Street in Conyngham. There is very little parking at the marker, so use caution.

Pennsylvania Historical Marker for
The Sugarloaf Massacre
And to add even more confusion to the Sugarloaf Massacre. The Pennsylvania Historical Marker lacated along Route 93 has information on it that is wrong (and yes they Historical Commission is aware of it but due to finances probably will never replace it with the correct information). The marker states that the unit attacked was from Northumberland County rather than Northampton County.