Railroad Chapel Car: Messenger of Peace

  • By Stephen Emerson
  • Posted 5/13/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9738

The Messenger of Peace chapel car is a wood railroad passenger car that was used as a traveling church capable of reaching people in far-flung regions served mainly by the railroad and little by other transportation. It was operated by the American Baptist Publication Society for 50 years (from 1898 to 1948). Nearly half that active time was spent in Washington state, and its long retirement years were spent in Washington as well. In 2007 the Messenger of Peace was donated to the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie, Washington, where it is being extensively and meticulously restored.

Dawn of the Chapel Car

In the rapidly expanding frontier of the American West, and in the more remote areas of the South and the heartland, the population advanced faster than the settled trappings of civilization and foundations of society such as law, justice, and organized religion. What flew ahead of these, during the course of settlement of the wilderness, were murderous violence, theft, fraud, prostitution, and drinking. 

Until the development of railroads, transportation to outlying areas was time-consuming and arduous. Chapel cars were a product of the Industrial Revolution, a modern adjunct to the traveling tent revivals and the circuit-riding preachers of the nineteenth century. Following the revivalist movement of the Second Reawakening, Protestant evangelists and, to a lesser degree, Catholics developed a great yearning to spread their vision of salvation and belief to as many persons as possible.  The railroad allowed them to travel much faster than the traditional tent revivalists, and so the evangelical movement became modernized. The era of the chapel cars is one of the most fascinating periods in the annals of the dispersion of the Christian gospel.  The era drew to an end during the first half of the twentieth century, with the development of the automobile and other means of transportation.

There is evidence that the concept of the chapel car was first developed on the Russian Steppes, where the Russian Orthodox Church used railroad cars to spread their preaching to those who lived and worked along the Trans-Caspian and Trans-Siberian railroads.  The environment there was much like that of the American frontier west, with rapid expansion into open spaces, bringing the industrial age to previously undeveloped regions, basically creating a new society from scratch.

Reportedly, the first American to consider the idea of the chapel car was a Baptist Sunday school missionary named “Uncle” Boston W. Smith.  It had become a common occurrence for overcrowded Sunday schools in his frigid native state of Minnesota to be held outdoors and, consequently, often canceled because of the weather.  One school superintendent, G. H. Herrick, requested that a passenger train be sidetracked at his town, St. James, for use as an all weather school house.  He convinced the railroad to loan him a car for the entire year.  When Uncle Boston learned of this, he conceived of the idea of using similar train cars to spread the gospel to communities across the country.

It was an Episcopalian, however, who produced the first chapel car in America.  Bishop William David Walker, inspired by the Russian Orthodox cars he saw on a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, contracted with the Pullman Palace Car Company, of Pullman, Illinois, to build the Church of the Advent, later known as the Cathedral Car of North Dakota.  The Baptists were somewhat chagrined that the Episcopalians had stolen their idea and implemented it first.  But the Cathedral Car of North Dakota was decommissioned after only about 10 years, and never left the state of North Dakota, falling short of the Baptist’s goal of preaching the word of God across the length and breadth of America.

In the 1890s, the American Baptist Publication Society collaborated with a syndicate of sympathetic and wealthy industrialists to promote the chapel car concept.  The first of seven cars commissioned by the Baptists, the Evangel, was dedicated on May 23, 1891, as a thousand delegates of the society appeared at the Grand Central Depot in Cincinnati, Ohio. Reverend Wayland Hoyt, one of the Baptist promoters declared, “Why should not the Lord Jesus Christ have the best things?  Why should his missionaries upon earth go to conventions in a stagecoach, when they own a magnificent palace car?” (This Train..., p. 2).

Barney & Smith Car Company

All of the Baptist chapel cars, including the Messenger of Peace, were built by the Barney & Smith Car Company.  The company was established at Dayton, Ohio, in 1849, at a time when the town of Dayton was not yet served by a railroad.  In fact, the first railroad cars built by the company had to be shipped by canal boats to the Ohio River and taken to an available rail connection. 

The partners who began the enterprise were Eliam E. Barney (1897-1880) and Ebenezer Thresher (1798-1886).  A succession of partners was involved with the company, and the name changed several times.  Thresher’s health failed in 1854 and he sold his interest in the firm to Caleb Parker, who in turn sold his interest to Preserved Smith. 

In 1867, the company was reincorporated as the Barney & Smith Manufacturing Company.  Smith retired in 1877.  When the elder Barney died, he was succeeded as president of the company by his son Eugene J. Barney (ca. 1839-1910), in 1881. The company went public in 1892, and the name was changed again, this time to the Barney & Smith Car Company. The firm manufactured all types of railroad rolling stock, and was the closest competitor of the Pullman Palace Car Company. The enterprise built its reputation through its craftsmanship and use of fine woods. With the onset of the automobile age and the development of metal railroad cars in the early twentieth century, the company declined financially, eventually going out of business in 1921.

The Evangel was the first of the chapel cars to hit the rails of the American West, eventually traveling through 17 states during its career, which lasted until 1924, when it was incorporated into the structure of the First Baptist Church of Rawlins, Wyoming.  The Evangel was followed by the Emmanuel (1893-1942), the Glad Tidings (1894-1926), and the Good Will (1896-1938).  Altogether, the American Baptist Publication Company sponsored seven chapel cars, including the Herald of Hope (1900-1935) and the Grace (1915-1946). The Messenger of Peace was built in 1898, a year when the Barney & Smith Car Company was finally fully recovered from the Panic of 1893.

Building the Messenger of Peace

In March 1898 swollen rivers in the Dayton vicinity rose over their banks and the Barney & Smith shops filled with several feet of water.  After the waters receded, it was found that little damage had been done to the unfinished rolling stock. The Messenger of Peace was completed in May. The car was mostly a stock version of their usual line of passenger cars, differing only in the interior furnishings.

Funds for the construction of Messenger of Peace were raised by Baptist women from across the country, and the car came to be known as “The Ladies’ Car.”  The first missionary to serve on the Messenger of Peace was the zealous Scotsman, Sam Neil.  When the new car was dedicated at Union Station in Rochester, New York, Neil declared the car was “the largest, the loveliest, and lightest, and brightest of them all. The ladies do not do things by halves” (Taylor and Taylor, p. 163). 

Sam Neil was also involved with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), an organization founded in London, England, on June 6, 1844, with the purpose of aiding young men.  This was done by providing lodging, nourishment, and social guidance to the masses of youth displaced, often from rural areas, by the Industrial Revolution.  In the decade preceding the Civil War, the organization spread to the United States.  It soon became closely associated with the railroad as the population spread westward.  At first referred to as the Railroad YMCA, the name was changed in 1920 to the Transportation YMCA as other forms of travel became popular.  Beginning in 1910, the Messenger of Peace was attached to the Transportation YMCA’s mission of advocating the establishment of local YMCAs at its various stops along the railroad routes.

The efforts of the Messenger of Peace to facilitate the creation of YMCAs throughout its range were only an adjunct, however, to its primary mission of spreading the Protestant gospel and establishing faithful and vibrant congregations in the towns of America.  A glimpse into the everyday activities of the chapel cars is provided in a book published in 1905, titled A Church on Wheels, written by Rev. C. H. Rust, a preacher who served for 10 years on the Glad Tidings chapel car.

The Work of Colportage

The most basic element of this work was the activity of colportage, a word that means, in this case, the distribution of bibles and religious literature. The chapel cars were well stocked with this reading material provided by their sponsor, the American Baptist Publication Society.

Colportage, however, is a rather passive way of spreading the word, and chapel cars also facilitated pro-active evangelism among the citizens along the railroad routes.  A primary goal was the facilitation of Sunday school instruction among youth, who were considered the foundation of successful congregations of the future. Rev. Rust describes an experience at a small town in the Minnesota woods where, although there were only six or eight houses visible, the car was filled up for the evening meeting. “How eagerly they listened and took in the gospel message in work and song!  We were there only a few days, but hearts were touched and a Sunday-school of some forty scholars was organized, and papers and quarterlies donated by our society were distributed” (Rust). 

Music was an essential component of the chapel car’s mission.  It was provided by an organ, sometimes by a phonograph, and always through the stirring hymn singing of the preacher, his wife, and the congregation. Rev. Rust wrote that: “Many a soul has found a lost chord, others have realized harmony was taking the place of discord in their lives, and still others who had remained untouched by every known plea, have been awakened to the noble and to Christ through the ministrations of gospel song as sung in the chapel car” (Rust). 

Probably the central mission of the chapel cars was what Rev. Rust referred to as the Resurrection Department. This entailed not only establishing new churches but the ongoing process of maintaining them. The Baptists understood that congregations established during a brief outburst of religious zeal might in time lose their enthusiasm. These congregations were often spoken of as being nearly dead. Thus the chapel cars periodically returned to various communities to re-kindle devout feelings.  To Rev. Rust, this process was needed primarily in the rural areas of the country, where citizens of small and often young towns required frequent moral guidance.

When a chapel car rolled into a town that lacked a church, the minister and his helpers sprang into action. Announcements were posted stating the time for prayer meetings. These were often at a late hour, because the farmers of the rural districts worked. As word spread and interest picked up, the meetings would attract more people. As the fervor grew the minister linked the people up with a nearby established church or, if that were not possible, convinced them to donate funds to constructing a new building. This usually entailed great sacrifice on the part of the congregants. As Rust notes: “Oftentimes they were too poor to have carpets on the floors of their houses, and they had heavy mortgages on their farms, but they could not think of living like heathen, therefore they would give to the very utmost” (Rust). 

Carrying Dwight Moody Home

The Messenger of Peace began making its rounds in the Midwest. At one location (the sources do not reveal where), Reverend Sam Neil preached his message in the car. One who observed was Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899), one of the most notable traveling evangelists of the late nineteenth century. Moody was moved to give a sermon to the crowd from the platform of the car. Moody, best remembered today as the founder of the Moody Bible Institute, was allowed to preach from the chapel car even though he was not a Baptist. He himself considered that he belonged to the Universal church, but his fame and popularity were so great that he was welcomed in most Protestant congregations. 

The next year, Moody fell seriously ill while preaching in Kansas City; the Messenger of Peace was nearby. Sam Neil was asked to continue giving sermons in town, filling in for Moody, while the stricken evangelist was placed in the chapel car, accompanied by Mrs. Neil, a doctor, and others.

What follows is probably the most memorable anecdote associated with the Messenger of Peace, although the car’s involvement was only peripheral. The dying Reverend Moody wished to return to his childhood home in Northfield, Massachusetts.  He was placed on the nearest available coach, the Messenger of Peace, which rushed him to St. Louis. There, he was transferred to a train headed for Detroit, reaching that city behind schedule. Moody’s associates feared the car with Moody would miss a connection in St. Thomas, where it would be connected to the train bound for Massachusetts. 

The story goes that the engineer on the train heard of the dire situation and declared, “Look here, fifteen years ago I was converted by Moody, and I have lived a better and happier life ever since. I didn’t know Moody’s car was on to-night, but if you want me to make up the time for you I’ll do it. Just tell Mr. Moody that one of his friends is on the engine and then hold your breath” (Chapman).  The engineer hit the throttle and the train hurtled forward at a mile a minute.  The connection with the Boston train was made and Moody reached his home in Northfield shortly after. He died there on December 22, 1899.

Beating the Devil

Shortly after this, another anecdotal event was attributed to the Messenger of Peace, which was still in Missouri.  A young boy, upon catching site of the chapel car, is said to have remarked “Well, I swan?  I’ve seen a cattle car, and a passenger car; but I’ll be blessed if I ever saw a car like that. Now, if that don’t beat the devil!”  Sam Neil’s droll reply was: “That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. Beat the Devil!” (Taylor and Taylor, 164). 

In 1902, Rev. Sam Neil left the Messenger of Peace and Rev. Joe P. Jacobs and his wife took over the work, and it was during Jacobs’ tenure that the chapel car made its biggest publicity splash. It was put on display at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and shared first-place honors with a coach presented by the Anheuser Busch Brewing Company. Reportedly, as many as 10,000 people a day walked through the car; one couple even got married inside.  The Jacobs were succeeded by Rev. J. H. Webber and his wife, then Rev. J. S. Davis and his wife, and then Rev. Thomas R. Gale and his wife.

The Messenger of Peace pursued its mission for nearly 50 years, fulfilling its evangelical purpose by making hundreds of stops in 10 states, mostly in the West but as far east as West Virginia. (Stops were made in Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Illinois, West Virginia, Montana, Nevada, California, Oregon, and Washington).  Other commitments, including exhibitions and conventions, took the car farther afield to other states including Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Nebraska, Michigan, Utah, Iowa, Idaho, and Wisconsin.  Overall, the Messenger of Peace traveled through at least 20 states.

In 1911 Reverend Gale took the car all the way to the East Coast to participate in the “The World of Boston” exposition, where it represented both the American Baptist Publication Society and the YMCA.  On its way back west, the Messenger of Peace made a memorable stop in the mining town of Thurmond Station, West Virginia. Althought the town itself did not allow saloons, the surrounding country was a veritable “sea of iniquity.” 

But the miners and railroad workers responded favorably to Reverend Gale’s preaching. A congregation was organized and a branch of the Railroad YMCA was established in the town. Then the Messenger of Peace went back to Missouri, where it was put on a train for Denver, where it participated in the International Convention of Christian Endeavor in April 1912.  A month later it was back in  Kansas City, Missouri, where the Fourth Chapel Car Conference was held in May 1912. 

But the car spent more and more time in the West.  For nearly two years, between 1913 and 1915, it plied the rails of California. A travel itinerary reprinted in the book This Train is Bound for Glory provides fascinating tidbits of life on the chapel car.  There are the usual revival meetings, repair holdovers, and church dedications.  More interesting comments include “Rice harvest interfered with attendance,” in Richvale, California, and “Pastor discouraged due to loss of his best workers,” in Eagle Point, Oregon (This Train...). 

Arriving in Washington State

In December of 1915, the Gales brought the Messenger of Peace to Pasco, its first mission in Washington state.  Then, after a short stop in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the car arrived in Spokane on April 20, 1916.  The comment in the travel itinerary read “Hard proposition, church nearly dead” (This Train...). 

Results in the Spokane vicinity varied.  At Spangle, the itinerary states, “Gracious revival stirred the community.” At Freeman the comment was “Most encouraging in every way.”  But at Valley Ford things looked doubtful -- “No pastor and every thing is upside down” (This Train...). 

The Messenger of Peace remained in Washington until December 1922; apparently the need was great.  Thomas Gale gave his last chapel car sermon in Spokane in January 1920, afterward taking a position as a Sunday school worker in Eastern Washington.  He expressed concern for the condition of the car, and for a month it sat vacant in Spokane.  Finally, it was taken to South Tacoma, where much needed repairs and repainting were accomplished.  Rev. Robert R. Gray and his wife took over the car.

End of the Chapel Car Era

During and following World War I, things became difficult for the chapel cars. They had never been attached exclusively to one railway company. They were added to passenger trains as needed to get to their destinations. Railroads used by the Messenger of Peace included the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific, the Union Pacific, and the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul. These firms were wealthy and sympathetic to the evangelistic cause.  Most of the time they let the chapel cars tie onto their trains for little or no cost. 

But the war changed all that. Transportation was needed for more pressing business, and the railroads felt they needed to charge rates for every car. Maintenance problems were becoming more common as well.  And the automobile and the truck were rapidly replacing the railroad as the primary mode of transportation. The Glad Tidings was retired in 1926. The Herald of Hope and the Good Will finished in 1935 and 1938, respectively. Others lasted into the 1940s.

The Messenger of Peace and two others are extant (in 2011). The Emmanuel is in South Dakota and the Grace is in Green Lake, Wisconsin. Both are being restored. 

From Diner to Historic Chapel Car

The Messenger of Peace was the last to go. It engaged in its final mission in 1948, and was retired upon the retirement of Reverend C. W. Cutler.  The car then sat vacant in South Everett for 21 months before it was officially decommissioned on March 1, 1949. 

On June 1, 1949, the car was sold for $400 and hauled to Snohomish, Washington, where it housed a roadside diner, the Ritz-Limited Café, until 1951.  Subsequently it was moved to the Olympic Peninsula, where it was used as an oceanside cottage.  By 1999 it sat without trucks (which house the wheels), up on blocks. It was being used for storage. 

Then it was donated, in very poor condition, to the Northwest Railway Museum. In September 2007, it was moved to the newly constructed restoration shop at Snoqualmie, Washington.  The project of restoring the Messenger of Peace is scheduled to reach completion by 2013.

Plans call for a complete restoration. Documentation of its historic appearance is available, both photographic and otherwise, ensuring a faithful reproduction.  The project is being pursued with the utmost care to historical accuracy of appearance and construction materials.  Its structural integrity, threatened by alterations to the framework, is being restored.  Close attention to detail is being carefully followed, even to the point of using the correct varieties of wood for different structural components.  When finished, the historic integrity of the Messenger of Peace will have been fully restored.  It will go on public display at the Northwest Railway Museum, in Snoqualmie, Washington.


“A History of the Barney & Smith Car Company,” City of Dayton Ohio website accessed July, 2007 (http://www.daytonhistorybookscitymax.com/page/page/1478214.htm); “Barney & Smith Car Company,” Ohio History Central: An Online Encyclopedia of Ohio History website accessed August, 2007 (http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=850); Richard R. Anderson, ”The Railway Chapel Car: Messenger of Peace Joins the Collection,” Northwest Railway Museum Newsletter, 2007; “History of the YMCA Movement,” YMCA website accessed July, 2007  (http://www.ymca.net/about_the_ymca/history_of_the_ymca.html);  Rev. C. H. Rust, A Church on Wheels (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1905); Master Car Builder’s Association, Car Builders Dictionary (New York and Chicago: Simmons Boardman Publishing, 1912); Wilma Rugh Taylor and Norman Thomas Taylor, This Train is Bound for Glory: The Story of America’s Chapel Cars (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1999); Rev. Harry R. Walrath, “God Rides the Rails: Chapel Cars on the Nation’s Railroads” website accessed August  2007 (http://www.frontiertrails.com/com/oldwest/chapel.html); John H. White Jr., The American Railroad Passenger Car (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978);  Rev. J. Wilbur Chapman, The Life & Work of Dwight Lyman Moody (1900), online text available at (http://www.biblebelievers.com/moody/index.html). See Also: Messenger of Peace website (http://www.trainmuseum.org/MoP/A.asp); 

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