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Today is the anniversary of the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster. On this date in 1876, a train plummeted into a ravine outside Ashtabula, Ohio, after the bridge it was traveling on collapsed. In the Cleveland area, you can visit a trio of gravesites related to this tragedy.

The bridge that collapsed was the creation of two men, both of whom were implicated as negligent in the tragedy but never faced any legal consequences. Amasa Stone was the architect. His own suicide several years after the accident has been attributed to it, but it is not clear what precipitated his actions. He rests in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.

Stone

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Charles Collins was the engineer. Officially, the story is that he committed suicide after testifying about the accident, but evidence pointed to his death being a homicide. His family mausoleum is within site of the marker for the unidentified victims of the disaster.

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Those victims of the tragedy who could not be identified (the train cars plunged into icy water from significant height, and then caught fire from the lamps and stove inside) lie under this monument in Chestnut Grove Cemetery.

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This is Willoughby Village Cemetery’s most famous grave. It was erected and maintained by donations from the local townspeople.

In the early morning hours of Christmas Eve in 1933, a young woman arrived in Willoughby and checked into a local boarding house. According to the landlady, Mary Judd, the woman came downstairs around noon, asked about local church services, wished her a merry Christmas, and departed. The young woman was dressed entirely in blue that complemented her blue eyes and was friendly to those she passed in the streets. Within minutes, she stepped into the path of an oncoming train.

In memory of the girl in blue

The citizens of Willoughby were saddened and captivated by the circumstances that would lead a pretty, friendly young woman to commit suicide by train (according to eyewitnesses, her actions appeared deliberate). She carried no identification – the only clue in her purse was a train ticket to Corry, Pennsylvania. They hoped that family would come to claim her, and when no one did, they paid for her funeral and monument themselves and maintained it. It was not until 1993 that she was identified as Josephine “Sophie” Klimczak.

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Here are articles about the girl in blue.  Even today, her grave is well maintained, shaded by a donated tree, and surrounded by flowers.

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Fate, they say, is a cruel mistress. The ghost of Charles Collins may be more acutely aware of that than most. Charles Collins was the chief engineer for the Lake Shore and Michigan Railway – the man who helped Amasa Stone design the fatal bridge and who inspected it very soon before the accident. In the ensuing investigation, he was heavily interrogated about his role in failing to prevent the disaster. And, the newspapers reported, one day after testifying, Charles Collins returned to his room and put a gun to his head. And that is how the story has come down to us. One of the two primary villains of the Horror was conveniently dead, and the public seemed to feel that his blood was some small payment for the destruction he caused.

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In fact, investigators at the time saw all the signs of a homicide rather than a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But at the time, allowing Collins’ death to go down on the books as a suicide resulting from his feelings of guilt was the more politically expedient choice than attempting to identify the murderer of a highly unpopular man.

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Collins’ family laid him to rest in the mausoleum in quiet Chestnut Grove Cemetery, mere miles from the disaster that seems to have precipitated his death. And then in 1895, the monument to the unrecognized dead was placed in the cemetery in the exact same section, almost next door to the Collins’ mausoleum. Cemetery visitors occasionally report a repentant, weeping man wandering that section. If ghosts do exist, it appears that Charles Collins can never escape his culpability for what happened outside Ashtabula in that gorge on a freezing December night. He and those who his negligence killed seem destined to haunt the same piece of hallowed ground, their fates permanently entwined.

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