In trying to come up with a topic for today’s post I pulled up my lagniappe file. That’s the folder where I stash all the interesting stories and factoids I come across during research – the unexpected little tidbits that have nothing whatsoever to do with my actual story need, but that spark my imagination and get my ‘what if’ meter vibrating big time.
The piece that jumped out at me this time was an article I came across when researching circuit preachers for a minor story thread in one of my books. The article talked about a very unique tool utilized by missionaries who were attempting to do their own brand of ‘taming the west’ – namely Chapel Cars.
These were railroad cars that were modified to serve as traveling churches. They road the rails from town to town, diverting to sidings for as long as they were needed, then moving on to the next stop. These cars were outfitted with very modest living quarters for the missionary and perhaps his wife. The rest of the space was utilized for church services.
Most western movies and tales glorify the gun-toting lawman or vigilante, portraying them as the tamers of the wild and wooly west. In actuality, the peace-minded missionaries who road the rails played a larger part in bringing peace to the lawless west than any of their more aggressive counterparts. They traveled in their mobile churches to remote areas of the country, bringing spiritual direction and a civilizing influence to people who were starved for something to offset the violence and loneliness of their existence.
These Chapel Cars traveled throughout the west and midwest – including North Dakota, Nevada, Minnesota, California, Louisiana, Texas, Oregon and Colorado. They stopped at mining towns and logging camps, tent cities and newly established towns, bringing their gospel message and the reminder of civilization to people who had seen neither for a long time – if ever.
And, given the unfettered existence of those in the camps and towns, their appearance was surprisingly well received more often than not – especially by the ladies of the area. The arrival of these Chapel Cars signaled not only the chance to attend Sunday services, but brought with them someone to perform weddings, funerals, baptisms and also a welcome excuse for social gatherings. In addition, many a rough and tough cowboy who would have balked at attending a traditional church seemed to feel differently about these side rail services. In fact, the very novelty of the Chapel Car brought folks from miles around just to have a look.
Of course, they didn’t always receive a warm welcome. There are recorded instances of the Chapel Cars being pelted with eggs and refuse, defaced with graffiti and even set on fire. But these were rare instances and the cars and their custodians survived to continue their mission.
These repurposed rail cars were furnished with pews, a lectern, an altar table and in some cases an organ. Depending on the construction, they could seat over 70 people inside. The Chapel Car was a multipurpose unit, serving as a home, church, Sunday School, social hall, library and meeting place. They carried bibles and tracts which were distributed all along the lines. The missionary and his wife, in addition to their usual ministerial duties, were expected to function as singer, musician, janitor and cook. They helped organize permanent churches, including raising the necessary funds and helping to construct the buildings.
There are records to support the existence of eleven Chapel Cars in all, though there is some evidence there may have been as many as seventeen. Of the eleven known cars, three were utilized by Catholics, seven by Baptists and one by the Episcopalians.
Chapel cars remained in use throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With the advent of World War I, however, the railroad tracks had to be kept clear for troop movement. In addition, new regulations prohibited the railroad companies from giving ‘free rides’ to the Chapel Cars, something that had been common practice up until that time. And as paved roads and the automobile became more prevalent it became easier for folks to travel longer distances on their own to attend church. Thus, the Chapel Cars that had brought their spiritual message and civilizing influence to the rough and tumble west faded into history.
So, what is the most memorable place where you’ve attended a church service and what made it memorable for you?