Many publications marveled at the innovation, efficiency, and scale of the Collinwood railyard. In the The Ohio Illustrated Magazine, the “tremendous activities” in the Lake Shore’s maintenanceManagers transformed a cavernous warehouse into a morgue, a clearing-house for elementary schoolers’ charred remains. facility overwhelmed W. Frank McClure, who spent most of his career promoting the wonders of modern financial institutions and massive industrial enterprises: “Picking up locomotives of 240,000 pounds, swinging them through the air like so many toys, and finally depositing them two hundred feet away is an everyday occurrence at the Collinwood, Ohio shops.” McClure watched workers fit 80-inch wheels onto locomotive axles and even admired the smooth flow of paperwork through management’s offices. Everything at the facility was organized, he wrote, to “the best possible advantage” (Dec 1906). Injury and death haunted workers at the Collinwood railyard, but celebrants of technological advancement saw only the perfect expression of industrial efficiency.
On the day of the fire, the railroad’s organizational prowess turned to the handling of children’s corpses. Managers transformed a cavernous warehouse into a morgue, a clearing-houseAn Ambulance with the Bodies of Dead. CP, Mar 5. Crowds line the street as a cart carries bodies toward the Lake Shore warehouse rising in the background. for elementary schoolers’ charred remains. Horse-drawn carts carrying bodies trundled along the few blocks of rutted, muddy road from the school ruins to the warehouse. Throngs of onlookers drawn by sympathy, sorrow, or voyeurism obstructed the transfer of bodies in their efforts to get a glimpse of them. The Cleveland Plain Dealer estimated that at least 25,000 people visited Collinwood on the day after the fire. The Cleveland News described tourists posing as parents in search of missing children, hoping to see the inside of the improvised morgue. They peered through windows and even barged through the front doors of distraught families’ homes, “sating their curiosity at the expense of the sorrowing.”
Everyone in Collinwood was used to the vicious wounding of railroad workers, but the onslaught of 172 burnt children’s bodies and the influx of disaster tourists pressed devastating questions about the brutality of the worldCuriosity Draws Great Crowd. People Stand for Hours in Front of City Hall Where Dead Bodies Were Taken. CN, Mar 6. Bodies not identified after two days were moved from the Lake Shore’s warehouse to Collinwood’s town hall. The News called the throngs “morbid vultures.” that the people of the town inhabited. Leonard Buschman worked the nightshift at the railroad’s maintenance shops. Asleep at home when the fire started, he rushed to the school too late to save his two daughters but in time to see dozens of other children die. Afterwards, he searched the morgue—which was also his workplace—in desperation, trying to identify his children’s remains. The next day, newspapers reported that Buschman, “driven violently insane,” tried to kill himself in the street.
Railroad managers, perhaps the world’s most disciplined designers of rationalized schedules in the world of 1908, did everything they could to impose order on a town crushed by emotional chaos. They organized the logistics of the morgue for maximum efficiency. A news reporter watched in admiration as the design took shape: “Employees of the Lake Shore A Row of the Children’s Dead Bodies Laid Out in the Temporary Morgue. Marshall Everett. Complete Story, 1908. n.p.Shops attended each party of bereaved people and prevented confusion,” while the county’s deputy coroner “reduced the work of identifying and inspecting the bodies to a system. . . .[B]lackened and charred forms [were] stretched out on the brick floor.” Attendants wrapped each body in a blanket and tagged it with a number. When the open space at the center of the building filled, rows of bodies were placed in more remote sections. With the arrangement of corpses complete, the Lake Shore Railroad’s special police and a small contingent of Collinwood’s officers admitted groups of twelve from the “clamoring throng” gathered at the gates. Narrow paths allowed parents to pass from one row of the dead to another, looking for their children, while doctors, working under the railroad surgeon’s guidance, stood poised with sedating doses of strychnine for those who lost emotional control. Identifications went as quickly as could be hoped, even if men and women sobbed and “doctors were busy with relief-giving hypodermics.”
By all indications, the people of Collinwood profoundly appreciated the efforts of the railroad to impose organization, if not meaning, onto their tragedy, however surreal the warehouse full of dead children must have been. The railroad provided a living to many in Collinwood. It also killed and maimed its workers. It altered the demographics of the town and upended its familiar social order. It housed the Village’s dead children when there was no place else for the bodies to go and deployed its logistical expertise to give order to the unimaginable. Eight days after the Collinwood fire, the Village council passed a list of resolutions expressing gratitude. One, acknowledging the Lake Shore Railroad, says nothing about the emotional experience of the morgue, but stands out for its embrace of industrial ways of comprehending the world: “to the employees of the Lake Shore Shops . . . be extended our full gratitude for the efficient service rendered.”