Chapel Cars of North America
Chapel cars brought the message of God’s love and faithfulness to thousands of fledgling towns along America’s railways in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. But exactly what were they and how did they come to be?
As the railroads developed across the American West, many small towns popped up, born to house and supply the railroaders who were building and servicing the new lines. Though the workers moved on down the line, many of the towns remained. If nothing else, the saloons were there and the towns were aptly described as “hell on wheels” because of their transitory nature, rampant drunken revelry and whoring. Although the clergy arrived soon after, they found the saloon-keepers and their customers opposed to or at least disinterested in religion. The arrival of wives and families created a greater demand for the church, and certainly the word of God was sorely needed! But there were not enough clergy to meet the need, nor did the small population have enough resources to build and sustain a church building. How was the church to meet the needs of these souls? The answer would turn out to be chapel cars.
“God was not ticketless as the rails stretched from coast to coast. From 1890, through
two world wars, and beyond, because of the prayers and actions of God-inspired
men and women thirteen chapel cars – three Episcopal, three Catholic, and seven Baptist –
were hauled across many of the same tracks that first carried those hell-on-wheels towns."
The same railroads that brought vice to the frontier would soon bring faith, morality and stability to the frontier via the chapel cars.
The first Episcopal chapel car
Episcopal Bishop William David Walker was the first to commission a chapel car in America. Traveling in Russia on the Siberian Railway he saw first-hand the chapel cars of the Russian Orthodox Church and felt this innovative type of rail car was what he needed to reach the outposts of his diocese. He approached wealthy Episcopalians in the East for support, and received the first donation to his project from Cornelius Vanderbilt II. In April 1890, Walker contracted with the Pullman Palace Car Company to build such a car.
The Church of the Advent: the Cathedral Car of North Dakota, was completed in November 1890. The 60’ long car had a 10’x10’ “stateroom” at one end which served as a vestry as well as a dormitory for the Bishop “when the people of the hamlet will not have room to shelter me.” The remainder of the space contained an altar, lectern, font, cabinet organ and 80 portable chairs. The “Advent” served North Dakota from 1890-1901. It was dismantled, but parts of it were eventually incorporated into Gethsemane Cathedral, the cathedral church of the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota in Fargo.
The first Baptist chapel car
In the late 1880’s, Boston W. Smith, a Baptist Sunday school superintendent known as “Uncle Boston”, had started a Christian library and a Sunday school that met in an unused passenger coach. This successful effort “grew into a flourishing Baptist church,” Smith wrote. Encouraged, Uncle Boston dreamed of a Baptist gospel train car where he could hold services, and was even more inspired when he had the chance to see the Advent in Minneapolis, where it was displayed on its maiden voyage to North Dakota. With funding from wealthy Baptists including Colgate Hoyt (whose wife was the niece of Gen. William T. Sherman), James Colgate and John. D. Rockefeller, he contracted with the Barney and Smith Car Company to produce it.
“From the window of a railroad car … I saw it – the saloon, and it was not difficult to imagine
the serpent slime of blight and wretchedness it would draw through that humble settlement.
But looking out of that car window did I see a church? That sight did not greet me.
There came upon me what the absence of a church must mean there – desecrated sabbaths,
the hard humdrum of life, simply material with never a push toward higher things….”
-Wayland Hoyt, Baptist pastor (brother of Colgate Hoyt, donor)
The first Catholic chapel car
The Catholic Church was late to the party but not to be left out, having realized the power of these chapel cars to attract new members to their respective churches. In 1907, thanks largely to donations from the Pullman Company – both monetary and in-kind - a 70-foot long former Wagner Pullman car was transformed into the chapel car Saint Anthony. It was fitted with an altar whose many drawers housed the vestments and sacred vessels. Candlesticks and an ivory crucifix were held in place by screws. A movable communion railing could be converted into a confessional. Two small rooms for the chaplain and attendants, a kitchen and a dining room completed the arrangement.
The St. Anthony was a converted Pullman sleeper car. The cost of the car was about $2,000
which was paid by Ambrose Petty, a successful businessman and devout Catholic who is said to have
missed Mass only twice in his lifetime. The total cost of purchasing the car and converting it,
according to the Topeka State Journal was $10,000 [$1,000,000 in current values].
—The Bishop Jots It Down, by Bishop Francis Kelley
The Saint Anthony left Chicago’s LaSalle Station on June 16, 1907, headed for Wichita, Kansas, “where it will be in the service of Bishop Hennessey until next December. During this time the Bishop or missionary priest will tour the branch lines of the railroads running through Kansas stopping at towns where there are no Catholic Churches to administer the sacraments and bring the consolation of religion to the isolated members of the Faith.” Saint Anthony stopped at Kansas City and St. Louis then traveled west on the Frisco and Missouri Pacific to Wichita. Its first mission trips were to Wellington, Castleton (where $3,100 was subscribed by chapel goers to build a church), Liberal, Larned. The Saint Anthony continued in service until 1920. When it was dismantled, its altar, organ and pews were placed in a new church in Wishram, Oregon.
In all, 13 chapel cars were built: 3 Episcopal, 3 Catholic, and 7 Baptist cars.
They were in service for varying periods of time during the years 1891 - 1962:
Episcopal chapel cars:
Chapel car of North Dakota “Advent”: 1890 – 1900
Chapel car of Northern Michigan #1: 1892 – 1894
Chapel car of Northern Michigan #2: 1894 - 1897
Baptist chapel cars:
Evangel: 1891 - 1925
Emmanuel: 1893 - 1942
Glad Tidings: 1894 – 1938
Messenger of Peace: 1898 – 1947
Good Will: 1895 – 1932
Herald of Hope: 1900 – 1931
Grace: 1915 – 1948
Catholic chapel cars:
Saint Anthony: 1904-1920
Saint Peter “The Iron Apostle”: 1912 - 1930
Saint Paul “The Steel Apostle”: 1915 – 1962
Like the early Christian apostles, chapel cars spread the Word of God to thousands of people and enabled Christianity to grow, to build, to minister. The clergy performed conversions, baptisms, weddings, funerals, church services and revivals. They taught Sunday schools, raised funds, and held countless meetings. Short notes from records of the clergy serving on these chapel cars tell an eloquent story of their service, their many accomplishments and their sometime disappointments and challenges.
Church organized; good harvest; built building; aroused people; started movement for building;
Sunday School organized; Mexican mission; raised money for new church; meeting too large for car;
three ladies converted, prepared for missionary service; people wholly indifferent;
church in need of a pastor – was found; spiritual influence inspiring; no support for building;
church revived; discouraged church rescued; raised money for part-time pastor;
eight interpreters interpret for Boston Smith as he talked to eight Indian tribes;
very hot in car during day; largely Italian and Greek about ready to build church;
small pox quarantine; local Presbyterian choir sang each evening in the car;
left a strong group; second funeral on car; car used as a church while building a church;
many are spiritually nearsighted; everybody in town is German from Russia, car full,
Spanish influenza scare; all public gatherings canceled due to flu.
Railroad lines that served Kansas and transported chapel cars:
AT&SF: Baptist cars 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7; Catholic cars St. Anthony and St. Peter
Union Pacific: Baptist cars 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7; Catholic cars St. Anthony and St. Peter
Frisco System/Frisco Lines: Baptist cars 1, 3, 5; Catholic cars St. Anthony and St. Peter
Missouri Pacific: Baptist cars 1 and 4; St. Peter
Missouri Kansas Texas: Baptist cars 1 and 4; St. Peter
Kansas City Mexico and Orient: Baptist car 1 Evangel
Kansas City Fort Scott and Memphis: Evangel
Kansas City Southern: Evangel
Kansas City Watkins and Gulf: Evangel
Chapel cars that served in Kansas:
Baptist chapel car Evangel was recorded in Kansas with Rev. J.S. Thomas and wife and daughter 1907-1910, and subsequently Rev. J. C. Killian and wife 1910 – 1914 visiting these towns: McPherson, Parsons, Moran, Pittsburg, Council Grove, Mound Valley, Galena, Kansas City, Topeka (car in shop), North Topeka Labette, La Harpe, Smith Center, Junction City, Blaine, Severance, Lebanon, Iola, Wichita, Wellington Herington Plains, Lyons, Frederick, Hoisington Ellsworth, Garden City, Arkansas City, Rolla, Columbus, Weir, Olathe, Galena, Dodge City, Liberal, Ellsworth, East Topeka, Ottawa, Gardner, Turner, Belleville, Council Grove.
Baptist chapel car Messenger of Peace served Kansas for a brief while in June - October 1898, with Rev. S. P Neil and his wife. It visited Kansas City, Argentine, Ottawa, Osawatomie, Eureka, Hamilton, Newton, Fredonia, Brownell, Manning, Dighton, Garden City.
Catholic chapel car Saint Anthony served in Kansas from June - December 1907, with Mr. G.C. Hennessey and Rev. T. A. McKernon. It visited Wichita, Wellington, Hutchinson, Castleton, Turon, Liberal, Meade, Bucklin, Pratt, Girard, Weir, Cherokee, Scammon, Parsons, Galena, Green Bush, Chautauqua (where all the Indians had Irish names!), Caney, Hotwater, Herington, Kingsley, Hanston, Dodge City, Ingalls, Offerle, Belpre and Lewis.
Catholic chapel car Saint Peter served communities in Kansas from January – June, 1914, with Mr. G.C. Hennessey and Rev. R. Serrano. It visited Hutchinson, Wichita, Nickerson, Sterling, Florence, El Dorado, Augusta, Winfield, Woodward, Harper, Pratt, Parsons, Arkansas City, Stafford, Elkhart, Newton, Hugo, Copeland, Bazine, Harper, Dighton, Scott City, Liberal, Kansas City, Topeka, Mulberry. Several of these stops were for a “Mexican mission”, although in Arkansas City it was noted that there was no mission as all the Mexicans had moved to Texas.
Material for this article came from:
This Train Is Bound for Glory: The Story of Amerca's Chapel Cars, by Wilma Rugh Taylor and Norman Thomas Taylor. Judson Press, Valley Forge PA; 1999.
Father Herman Page, who served at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Topeka, was credited as a resource on the Northern Michigan cars. Father Page was an esteemed railroad historian who provided many artifacts to the Great Overland Station Museum.
Chapel car Messenger of Peace is a featured display at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie, Washington.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Chapel car Grace is on display on the grounds of the Green Lake Conference Center in Green Lake, Wisconsin. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Evangel, completed in the spring of 1891, measured 10’ by 60’. Its living quarters contained a writing desk and bookshelves, upper and lower berths, a kitchen with a Westlake stove, copper-lined sink and china closet. The chapel portion had an altar, pews, a “magnificent” brass lectern, a pump organ, brass chandeliers and small panes of stained glass above the windows. The Evangel visited 88 towns in 1891, its first year of operation. It served Kansas towns during 1907- 1914, including Kansas City, Topeka, Junction City, Wichita and Liberal. Because of the Evangel being frequently in Wichita, a relationship developed between the pastor and Walter Coleman, with the result that eventually the Coleman Company donated its special gasoline lamps to provide lighting systems to all the Baptist chapel cars and the later Catholic cars. The Evangel continued in service through 1925 and was incorporated into the First Baptist Church in Rawlins, Wyoming, now the Chapel Car Bible Church.
Three men standing in front of Baptist chapel car Evangel in Wichita, Kansas. Pictured are William Coffin Coleman (inventor of Coleman Lantern) and two workmen. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Pictured is chapel car Glad Tidings on siding. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Children meeting at chapel car Glad Tidings. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A brochure from Catholic chapel car St. Anthony circa 1907. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A photo of the blessing of the Roman Catholic chapel car St. Peter. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.