The Ashtabula Horror

February 9, 2009 | no comments
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The train known as the Pacific Express (No. 5, Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway) pulled out of Erie, Pennsylvania on the afternoon of December 29, 1876, headed toward Chicago. Two locomotives, christened “Socrates” and “Columbia,” towed its two passenger cars, three sleeper cars, two baggage cars, two express wagons, a smoker, and the caboose.

The Pacific Express reached Ashtabula, Ohio, early on that snowy evening. When it pulled out of the Ashtabula station, 159 passengers and crew members were aboard.

The train had gone only about 100 yards from the station when, at 7:28 p.m., it reached the iron bridge over the Ashtabula River. “Socrates” had just crossed the bridge when bystanders and passengers heard a terrible cracking sound. The bridge collapsed, and “Columbia,” with all eleven following cars, plunged 70 feet into the river. Within moments, the train cars – all built of wood – were set afire by the kerosene heaters and lamps in use aboard. Would-be rescuers rushed to the ravine, but could only stand at the edge gazing in horror at the inferno in the water below.

Among the passengers who escaped from the blaze was Philip Paul Bliss (1838-1876), a Presbyterian “missionary singer”and author of numerous hymn texts and tunes. Three of his texts are published in our current hymnal: 131, “More Holiness Give Me”; 235, “Should You Feel Inclined to Censure”; and 335, “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy” (better known as “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning”). When Bliss could not find his wife, Lucy Young Bliss (1841-1876) among the dazed survivors, he turned back into the fire. The young couple were among the 92 killed in the disaster, their bodies among 48 burned so badly that they could not be identified and were buried in a common grave in the Chestnut Grove Cemetery in Ashtabula. The couple left behind two orphaned sons, George and Philip Paul, in Chicago.

For several years, Bliss had worked in partnership with the great Presbyterian evangelist Dwight L. Moody and as the song-director for revivalist-evangelis Daniel Webster Whittle. In 1874 Bliss had given up his popular – and extremely lucrative – work as a popular musician and conductor of singing schools, concert tours, and musical conventions, to become an evangelist himself, signing over his royalties to charities and to missionary work.

When they heard of the disaster (the worst loss of life in a railway accident in America to that point, and now recalled as “the Ashtabula Horror”), Whittle and another of Bliss’s friends, musician James McGranahan, went immediately to Ashtabula in an effort to identify the couple’s bodies. Although they could not do that, the pair located Bliss’s trunk. Inside the trunk, which had escaped the inferno virtually unscathed, they found the text to Bliss’s last hymn:

I will sing of my Redeemer,
And His wondrous love to me;
On the cruel cross He suffered,
From the curse to set me free.

Sing, oh sing, of my Redeemer,
With His blood, He purchased me.
On the cross, He sealed my pardon,
Paid the debt, and made me free.

I will tell the wondrous story,
How my lost estate to save,
In His boundless love and mercy,
He the ransom freely gave.

Sing, oh sing, of my Redeemer,
With His blood, He purchased me.
On the cross, He sealed my pardon,
Paid the debt, and made me free.

I will sing of my Redeemer,
And His heavenly love to me;
He from death to life hath brought me,
Son of God with Him to be.

Sing, oh sing, of my Redeemer,
With His blood, He purchased me.
On the cross, He sealed my pardon,
Paid the debt, and made me free.

In the months following Bliss’s death, McGranahan moved to Chicago to take up Bliss’s work with Whittle. He also set his friend’s last hymn to music, and “My Redeemer” was first performed in 1877 in one of Whittle’s services. Very soon after that, Thomas Alva Edison recorded the song as performed by George Coles Stebbins, making it one of the first tunes ever recorded.

In 1893 the music written by McGranahan was performed in Salt Lake City, at the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, sung by Robert Easton, a tenor with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and son-in-law of Brigham Young. But Easton did not sing Bliss’s words that day. He used McGranahan’s music as a setting for Eliza R. Snow’s poem, “Oh, My Father.”

Of the several tunes used for “Oh, My Father” over the years, McGranahan’s music, written to complete the work of his friend Philip Paul Bliss, remains the most popular, and is the tune published in our hymnal today.

Cross-posted from Keepapitchinin — click here for comments.
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