Chapel Cars

Barney and Smith Railway Car at Carillon Park

Barney & Smith Car, Carillon Park

I’ve recently become enchanted by railway cars.  Not just any railway cars, though.  Special ones.  Very special ones.

The small town I grew up in had a railroad line that crossed through the center of town.  Not that it really had a center, but if it did, that’s where the rail line came through.  About the only time anyone ever paid attention to it was when it claimed someone’s life.  Usually some high school boy who tried to beat the train over the crossing.  It happened more than you think it might have, or should have.

The first night I was at grad school, the weekend before classes actually started, several of us decided to go visit the oldest bar in town.  We’d heard rumors the drinks were good, the menu varied, and, as history majors, we figured it was our duty for us to christen the oldest bar with a visit by the newest residents.  What nobody warned us about, though, was that railroad tracks ran down the middle of the street in front of the bar.  Active railroad tracks, that, in the early morning hours, had real trains running along them.  A bit sobering, literally, to be walking to your car parked on the street across from the bar and have to pause for a train to go by.  And hope it missed your toes.  That episode was only topped a couple of years later –same town, but different tracks– when a friend and I were returning home late in the evening from studying out at a local coffee shop.  That night, my poor little Lynx car french-kissed a train, as it left only a long, curling scrape against the front bumper as the engine slowly rolled us off the tracks.  When I shakily called my mother after arriving safely home, she responded that bonding experiences like that drew people together and  “would make good stories to tell my grandchildren.”

I’ve always wanted to do a cross-country train trip, preferably out west, across the mountains.  My husband and I took the train east, from Windsor, Ontario, over to Toronto, on a marvelous weekend vacation to catch Colm Wilkinson performing in Les Miserables.  (Remind me sometime to tell my “princess chair” story from that escapade!)  And this summer, I’m going to do a similar trip, on the U.S. side of the border, though.

But my recent fascination came out of an unlikely place, a history lecture talking about late-nineteenth-century attempts to Christianize the Western U.S.  The professor talked about chapel cars, something I had not heard of before.  These cars were specially designed railroad cars, built to be mobile churches.  Built to transport a missionary, or a missionary couple, around part of the Western territories and states, preaching out to the settlers and military men and homesteaders as they settled these western lands.  The missionary lived in the back of the car, while the front was decorated to serve as a chapel, a mobile church on railway wheels and tracks, complete with altars, stained glass windows, and pews.  God on the move.  Even more interesting for me was that a fair number of these chapel cars were built by a company in Dayton, Ohio.  A famous company – the Barney & Smith Car Company.  As a reflection of their mission, the cars bore names like Grace, Good Will, and Messenger of Peace.  The Catholic-supported ones bore names of revered saints.

In doing a bit of research, there is a marvelous book out about the chapel cars, This Train is Bound for Glory: The Story of America’s Chapel Cars, by Wilma Rugh Taylor and Norman Thomas Taylor.  The book details the cars, the routes, the construction, and the restoration of these cars in incredible detail.  Floor plans, routes and stops, and photographs bring the story of these cars to light.  Portions of the book have been made available online, and I highly recommend a look if you are interested in the story of these cars.

Inspiration often finds me in the oddest spots.  A two-minute portion of a history lecture sparked a new interest, one that I expect I’ll return to in the not-to-distant future.

What’s inspired you lately?  Anything fueled your imagination and creativity?

[Note: This post is #3 of 26 of the April A-to-Z Challenge.  Please see the button at the lower left of the page for more information.]

1 Comment

Filed under April A-to-Z Challenge, History

One response to “Chapel Cars

  1. Thanks so much for this fun post. Hope you don’t mind that I borrowed your photo for a post of my own:


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