Chapel Cars

Photo WG2 smallHi!  Winnie Griggs here.  The past several weeks have been over the top busy for me – I’ve got TWO book deadlines in March and I’m the coordinator for a writer’s conference that falls the weekend of March 6th.  So, with apologies to all of you wonderful readers, I’m going to reprise and older post for you today.  And to make up for my shameless lack of originality, I’m going to give one of today’s visitors who leaves a comment here their choice of any book on my backlist.


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.

Chap car Int01

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 usualExterior 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 or email her at

23 thoughts on “Chapel Cars”

  1. I think this was very interesting about these railroad cars being used as churches. They were blessed I’m sure. I imagine they were the cause of many new Christians and also churches, I would sure love to win one of your books Winnie. GOD bless you. Maxie > mac262(at)me(dot)com <

  2. I never knew about traveling train churches,,my grandfather,father and most of my uncles worked on the railroad and i have never heard this before,,the most unusual place ive been to a church service would be in a tent revivial they have these in the south and we went to some of those occiasionly and we had services at a creek for a baptism,,in running water,,my grandfather was a southern bapbist minister and they like to baptise in local creeks with running water

    • Hi Vickie – glad I could ‘teach’ you something new. I’ve never been to a tent revival myself but I can see where they would bring a special closeness to a worship service

  3. Learned something new,again, from my friends at
    P&P! I love the idea of the Church Cars.

    I love outdoor worship! Camping in the mountains of Colorado we have often come upon small chapels used for that purpose. Never actually found anyone else holding a service but have paused to worship.

    • Hello Connie – so glad you enjoyed the post.I’ve seen pictures of some of those woodland chapels and always wanted to see one in person. Since i’m not much of a hiker or camper though, the chances of that happening are probably pretty slim 🙂

  4. This was just fascinating, Winnie! I had never heard of such a thing. Thanks for bringing the existence of railroad car churches to light.

    I don’t think I’ve ever been to a church service anywhere quite as exotic. Auditoriums and churches mostly. Outside twice at retreats.

    Best wishes on all your deadlines! Hang in there–

  5. Hi Kathryn! Gald you enjoyed the post and thanks for the well wishes on the deadlines – I should be able to finish up the first one before morning – God willing and the creek don’t rise!

  6. Wishing you well in your many endeavors this month, Winnie! I loved reading your post and can just imagine the services that were enjoyed in these repurposed rail cars. Fascinating!

  7. Best wishes on getting down all that needs to be done. I always enjoy your posts Winne. They are fascinating and I love the historical information. Out and about in our travels we came across what was once known as the smallest church in the world. It’s called Decker’s Chapel St. Marys, Pennsylvania. It’s 12×18. While we were not there at worship time we were able to go inside and observe and have a quiet moment of reflection.

    • I’d have to say the most interesting place I’ve attended a worship service was in a rodeo arena. Also went to one in a drive-in theater once with the preacher on horseback in front of the screen.

  8. I remember this post and enjoyed reading it again.

    I guess the most memorable or unusual place I attended a church service was while I was in the Peace Corps in the Philippines. I was visiting another volunteer and an american priest was in the area. the word went out and about 5 volunteers came to the house. The priest celebrated mass at the table breaking a loaf of bread and pouring wine to celebrate the sacrament of communion. It was a close and personal celebration, likely very much like the early christian services.

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