Kinsman site of PBS documentary

As many of you know Kinsman was the home of Philip Bliss, nationally known hymn composer and affiliate of the great Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. His Ministry of Music traveled south after the Civil War and helped to heal a nation.

Philip Bliss and his wife Lucy lost their lives on Dec. 29, 1876, in Ashtabula.

Leonard Brown, owner of Beacon Productions of Canton and director of the PBS documentary, ”ENGINEERING TRAGEDY: The Ashtabula Train Disaster” came to Kinsman last week at the invitation of the Kinsman Historical Society to discuss this film-in-the-making.

Mr. Brown told the group gathered at the Kinsman Presbyterian Church that he hopes to use the church as the site of the Philip Bliss funeral. He intends to use extras (those actors who do not have a lead part) from Trumbull County.

It is his intention to film in Kinsman, Jefferson and, of course, Ashtabula at the scene of the actual accident. ”What many people don’t know,” said Mr. Brown, ”is that there is a lively film community right here in Northeast Ohio and I intend to use as much of that talent as possible.”

The night of the disaster, 97 of 150 people on the Pacific Express No. 5, the Titanic of railroad luxury, lost their lives. Fifty of those lost were unidentifiable due to the fire that raged in the gorge where the train cars landed.

The fire was caused by wood-burning stoves in each train car meeting the highly varnished wood from which the cars were made. Others died either of exposure or drowning in the Ashtabula River.

The city of Ashtabula was unready to deal with the wounded and the dead and this spurred a concerned citizen to raise funds for the city’s first hospital. The Ashtabula Protection Fire Hose Company was more of a gentlemen’s club at the time and these gentlemen proved totally unequal to the task of fighting such an inferno. This tragedy prompted them to professionalize the department ensuring that they could perform better in the future.

The Ashtabula train disaster affected many prominent people including Amasa Stone, the great philanthropist from Cleveland, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the millionaire railroad magnet from New York, and Ohio-born, newly-elected president of the United States Rutherford B. Hayes.

Amasa Stone was the builder of the bridge. Following plans for a timber-based bridge, he decided to use newly available cast-iron girders to replace the timbers, a mistake that was to prove fatal.

Vanderbilt died of a massive stroke just a few days after hearing of the disaster, which involved one of his railroads causing his stock to plummet. Hayes lost his favorite first cousin Mary Roxanne Birchard in the accident.

The disaster brought forth in 1877 new laws regarding building codes for bridges. News of the accident sent a ripple of outrage across the nation and brought about the realization of the need for engineering ethics, engineering consulting and testing when building new bridges.

Recently, Dr. Dario Gasparini, a faculty member in Civil Engineering at Case Western Reserve University studied the design of Amasa Stone’s bridge. Problems with casting, numerous design flaws, and the fact that there was a howling snowstorm pounding the cast-iron bridge the night of the disaster all contributed to its collapse.

Mr. Brown and his film crew plan to return to the site of the disaster with a team of forensic specialists and Dr. Gasparini to attempt to recover the key piece of the bridge that led to the failure. This part of the site has been buried since 1876 but will be exhumed and taken to the engineering lab at Case Western Reserve University to be analyzed using such 21st-century techniques as the electron microscope.

The documentary focuses on the accident as well as the outcome of the current investigations. Perhaps, then, a final analysis of this disaster can be made.

I think it’s wonderful that this documentary is being made here and even more exciting that talent from Northeastern Ohio is being used in every phase of its creation. Mr. Brown also produced and directed the PBS documentary Ships of the Great Lakes in 2011.

O’Connor is a Brookfield resident. Email her at