Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Ashtabula Horror

The Ashtabula Horror

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 09, 2009

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 to look for her. 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-evangelist Daniel Webster Whittle. In 1874 Bliss had given up his 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 an American railway accident 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.

[Update: Be sure to see this “P.S.”follow-up post with the sheet music to “My Redeemer.” It’s very familiar, but there are some differences between “My Redeemer” and the arrangement of “Oh, My Father” that we are familiar with.]



  1. Fasinating. I greatly enjoy learning the origins of our hymns. I believe that the composers of the words and music, inside or outside of the Church, were inspired.

    Comment by Steve C. — February 9, 2009 @ 7:36 am

  2. Thank you for the educational information about Philip Paul Bliss. One of my favorite Hymns is “Brightly Beams”. Such a tragic story!

    Comment by IntheDoghouse — February 9, 2009 @ 8:38 am

  3. Thank you, Ardis. I enjoy learning the backgrounds of our hymns, too.

    Comment by Rick — February 9, 2009 @ 8:42 am

  4. Fascinating stuff, as usual. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Christopher — February 9, 2009 @ 11:07 am

  5. Wow, Ardis!

    Thank you for this great story.

    That was an awesome twist at the end!

    Comment by Ben Pratt — February 9, 2009 @ 11:57 am

  6. I loved that one Ardis. Distracting me from contracts… wonderful stuff.

    Comment by Jon W. — February 9, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

  7. Really interesting. I have been to Ashtabula (weird, huh?), but was unaware of this story. Thanks.

    Comment by Martin Willey — February 9, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

  8. I recently did a little arranging of the “Brightly Beams” tune, and in looking for attribution information, as well as background on it, came across these names (Bliss and Moody). So, knowing a little (a lot!) more about these remarkable gentlemen is fascinating. Thanks!

    Small correction: As far as I know, Bliss didn’t write the text to “Should You Feel Inclined to Censure” (just the tune). That hymn is actually the same music as “Brightly Beams.”

    Now, on to finding a recording of the tune to “My Redeemer” . . .

    Comment by Hunter — February 9, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

  9. Breathtaking post and fascinating info.

    Comment by m&m — February 9, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

  10. Oops. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t read carefully enough: the “My Redeemer” tune by McGranahan IS the current tune in our 1985 Hymnal. Did I get it right this time?

    Comment by Hunter — February 9, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

  11. Well, as Maurine notes in the “P.S.” that I’ve just posted, there are some differences between our arrangement of “Oh, My Father” and “My Redeemer.”

    So you were right both times, Hunter. 🙂

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

  12. What a beautiful story! Thanks, Philip Paul Bliss.

    Comment by Ben H — February 10, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI