When Ohio looks at itself in the mirror, I am convinced it seems something different than what other people think. Let’s face it, the rest of our country takes a look at Ohio as “flyover country.” We are a monolithic people that generally talk normal and live in quaint towns or not-too-big cities. To many, there is nothing inherently special about Ohio.
Yet, on closer examination, Ohio is too mature for a one-size fits-all motif. Each part of our state is unique and different. Different cultural norms and ideals exist in each part of the state, including our state’s vast history.
Such a piece of that history I recently learned. It wasn’t until a few days ago I became aware of the Ashtabula Railroad Disaster of 1876. On a late December night, The Pacific Express, owned by the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway crashed over a bridge in Ashtabula. Ninety-two people died and another 64 were injured. At the time, it was the worst rail disaster in our nation’s history. Only three people on that train survived with no injuries.
Perhaps even more concerning than the train wreck itself was the community’s response to what could easily be described as the city’s greatest disaster. In the aftermath of the wreck, many of the townspeople came to the river to see what had happened. They saw a pile of passenger rail cars that plunged into the frozen Ashtabula River that were on fire due to the lamps and stoves that were in each of the cars.
Some of the lucky survivors of the wreck made it to shore to be taken to the homes of some of the townspeople (Ashtabula did not have a hospital at this time). Some of the survivors were actually beaten and had their personal effects stolen; estimates had as much $1,500 being seized at the time. The fire department at the scene was under strict orders: don’t save the lives on the train, just clear a path so that the wounded could be taken away.
I can’t help but think that through this tragedy, the situation wasn’t made better, but was made worse by some of the townspeople of Ashtabula. Even worse, the decisions that made weren’t just a few bad apples taking advantage of people in a desperate position, there were larger, more structural actions that prevented lives being saved. At this point the question needs to be asked, if you were on that fire department, would you extinguish the fire? Would you try to save lives?
One of the true markers of community is how people come together in times of crisis and in times of disaster. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live in March 1913, during the Great Flood. But even the little research I have done demonstrated that while the flood was truly destructive, there was no widespread looting, no efforts to actively hurt each other; neighbors helped neighbors. It look years to rebuild, but this town and many towns in the Miami Valley did just that.
This piece was not meant to denigrate the people of Ashtabula or to extol the virtues of life here in the Miami Valley (though it is really good here). However, I am reminded by famous words of the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He once said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” With apologies to Mr. Solzhenitsyn, the same is true for communities. Communities like ours, communities like Ashtabula.
The difference between living in a good community and a not-so-good community lies within each one of our hearts and we are continually called to consciously decide what kind of community we want to live in. Our actions and our attitudes will determine what kind of community we live in. Do we want to live in a community of generosity? Do we want to live in a community where we believe in ourselves and we believe in each other? Do we want to live in a community where our future is even brighter than our present?
We can do it, we just need to look in the mirror and determine what kind of community we want to be.
William “Bill” Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.