‘Saving’ The West


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.


chap-car-ext02These 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?

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at winnie@winniegriggs.com.

19 thoughts on “‘Saving’ The West”

  1. Hi,Winnie. What a fun tidbit! I’m so glad you shared. That certainly does get the imagination whirling, doesn’t it? How long would the chapel cars stay in one place? Did they have a circuit like the riders who would visit the same towns on a regular basis? It almost sounds like the old tent revivals only on the rails. Fascinating stuff.

  2. A few years ago the church I grew up in celebrated its 100th anniversary. I decided I would go to the church service and dinner. It ended up being an all-day affair with a special guest speaker, a video history, dinner and later supper. My husband wondered what happened to me as I stayed for all but the second meal. Although it was not an unusual place for a service, it was very memorable.
    Another informative post from P&P.

  3. Neat post, Winnie. I’d read a little about the Chapel Cars before. There is going to be a story in them some day. lol

    My most memorable service was sunrise on Easter morning on a mountain top in Georgia. Beautiful!

  4. Karen – Yep, it gets the imagination going doesn’t it – just trying to imagine what life would have ben like for a missionary riding one of those trains.

    Sue – what a special memory to have!

    Tracy – Oooh, sunrise service on a mountain top. It must have been so chill bump-inspiring, in a wonderful kind of way.

  5. Hi Winnie,
    I love blogs when I learn something new about the west. I had no idea about the Chapel Cars. Nothing too unusual for me as far as church services, except for Easter under a tent. One could think about the old west as we are celebrating, but for the massive million dollar tent, a crowd of thousands, the TV cameras (the service is televised), the amazingly huge choir. It’s always my favorite service for the year.

  6. Hi Winnie, I learned something new today. I’d never heard of chapel cars before.

    We used to have devotions outdoors on Sundays during Girl Scout camp. I always felt weird without my Sunday dress and shiny patent leather shoes 🙂

    Thanks for the fun post.

  7. Hi Winnie, I learned something new today. I’d never heard of chapel cars before.

    We used to have devotions outdoors on Sundays during Girl Scout camp. I always felt weird without my Sunday dress and shiny patent leather shoes 🙂

    Thanks for the fun post.

  8. Charlene and Tanya – Glad I could broaden your horizons today 🙂
    Charlene, Easter service under a tent sounds interesting – allows you to appreciate the creation you’re giving praise for.
    And Tanya – I hear you about the Sunday dress and patent leather shoes. I still remember how strange I felt the first time I wore pants to church

  9. Winnie, Loved reading about the Chapel Cars. I had never heard of them before. How very interesting.

    The most memorable place I can remember attending church was with my sister-in-law in Washington state. The altar and the lectern stood before floor to ceiling clear glass windows through which was visible the most beautiful rose garden I have ever seen. The hymn “In the Garden” kept going through my mind, and when the congregation sang it at the end of services I could visualize Christ hoding my hand while we walked through fragrant flowers.

  10. Hi Winnie, Fascinating post! I’d never heard of chapel cars before today.

    I’ve been to church in places as diverse as the traditional church on the corner to an historic theater in downtown LA, to an Easter sunrise service on a golf coruge, to another sunrise service in the Santa Monica mountains.

    Most memorable was a Christmas Eve service where Robert Goulet sang an a cappella version of “O Holy Night.” His voice alone filled the sanctuary from top to bottom. It was AMAZING!

  11. Some memorable services I’ve heard of: Easter Sunrise in the park, revivals in tents, and Joel
    Osteen’s services in a former basketball arena.

    One special place that really speaks to me is the
    Holy Family Prayer Garden at our parish church.
    It means so much to me because it is paved with
    bricks carrying the names of so many parishioners,
    both family and friends, who are no longer with us. At our outdoor services, I can feel them around and about us sharing in prayer!

    Pat Cochran

  12. Hi Winnie,

    What an interesting blog! I’d never heard of chapel cars. I can see what a vital role they would’ve played since a lot of the early towns didn’t have a church until much later. I’m sure the women really appreciated having a place of any sort in which to worship. And people in need of a minister’s services would’ve certainly welcomed them.

    The place that was most memorable to me was a tent revival that used to be quite common. I remember the open air and the low lighting of those. Made me feel closer to God in some ways. It was more intimate somehow.

  13. Vicki – yes it seems like the chapel cars are one of the best kept secrets of the westward movement. Sounds like you’ve had a number of very memorable experiences with church services. And Robert Goulet singing ‘O Holy Night’ a capella – Amazing indeed!

    Pat – what a wonderful way to honor the memories of friends and loved ones who have passed on. It sounds like a verry special place.

  14. Linda – Yes, from what I read the women were especially grateful for the appearance of the chapel cars, but the men took to it surprisingly well also. My guess is that, especially in the remoter areas, the arrival of anyone or anything new was a welcome distraction from routine.

    And I’m with you in feeling that outdoor services can draw us closer to our Creator.

  15. Interesting post. I’d not heard of the chapel car practice before.

    While in the Peace Corps in the Philippines, several volunteers and I were traveling in a remote area. We all happened to be Catholic. We met a young american priest who was serving the area. We went to the local volunteer’s house that evening and the priest joined us to say mass. We set up a table, he sat on one side with a loaf of bread and his chalice for wine. He said mass, consecrated the bread and wine, and served communion with it. It was probably as close to how the original christian communities celebrated their services as we could ever get. It was a very special experience.
    During Peace Corps training, we were in the mountains in California. We attended a lovely little church in the Sierra’s that could seat maybe 50 and had a gorgeous mountain view in every direction. The priest covered several parishes in the area, saying mass at 3 or 4 different churches each Sunday (can’t remember exact numbers, it was 1967). Each church was 40 to 50 miles from the other. The priest mentioned the wear and tear on his poor tires. The volunteers stood at the door after mass and collected enough money to replace at least a couple of them.

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