Trains Bound for Glory

By Eilene Lyon

I would have guessed that by 1890 or the early 20th century every community in America would have a church of some type, but that was not the case. Whistle-stop towns sprang up along the proliferating railroad lines, particularly in the west. In them, saloons far outnumbered churches.

The idea of railcars designed as mobile chapels originated in Russia and was brought to the U.S. by William David Walker, an Episcopalian Bishop from North Dakota. The Episcopal Church commissioned the first railroad chapel cars. The Baptists soon followed, at the urging of Dr. Wayland Hoyt, and financed by John Rockefeller Sr. and other Baptist industrialists. The Catholic Church later purchased a used car for their own mobile ministry.

A total of 13 such cars were constructed and roamed the railroad routes, bringing Faith to the people. The plan would not have worked without the cooperation of the railroads in giving the chapel cars free access to the rails.

St. Anthony chapel car in Haurika, Oklahoma, in 1926 (Loyola University Archives)

In 2015, on a visit to South Dakota, I had an opportunity to go inside the chapel car Emmanuel, one of the early Baptist cars (feature image, above), now on display at Historic Prairie Village in Madison. It has been reconstructed, because at one point it had been gutted to be used as a storage shed. Much of the interior paneling and exterior wood is original, but the pews are new.

The cars included very cramped living quarters for the traveling minister (known as a colporter). Usually they were single men or childless married couples. After being delivered to a rural siding, the colporter would hold services and Sunday school classes; marriages and baptisms took place; spiritual counseling was offered to those in need.

Interior of the St. Paul chapel car, undated. (Loyola University Archives)

The first Baptist chapel car was built in Dayton and christened the Evangel in Cincinnati, Ohio. An early colporter for the church was Rev. Edwin G. Wheeler. His territory included Washington, Oregon, and northern California. He switched to the Emmanuel, the second built Baptist car.

In 1895, the Emmanuel was taken to a railroad shop in Sacramento for repairs and maintenance. Rev. Wheeler and his wife (Rose L. Farrington) boarded a train to take them home to Winona, Minnesota, for a much-needed vacation. Nearing Grants, New Mexico, the train crashed. Rev. Wheeler, who was standing on the exterior platform, was thrown from the train and the car fell over and crushed the life from him.

The Emmanuel now features a stained glass widow near the lectern featuring the image of Rev. Wheeler.

(Courtesy of Jim Curran on Find a Grave)

The chapel cars operated freely up until World War I. They continued in service to a lesser extent until about 1942. The last car was taken out of service in the 1970s.


Halley, Catherine. “Railroad Chapel Cars Brought God to the People.” JStor Daily, March 13, 2023.

“The Rev. E. G. Wheeler: Killed in Railroad Wreck on Wednesday” The Los Angeles Herald, August 10, 1895 p. 10 – via

63 thoughts on “Trains Bound for Glory

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  1. What a horrible way to die! I’d never heard of a “colporter.” America used to rely so much on trains, but no longer. I was reminded of that during my recent trip to Japan, where the train system is fabulous.

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  2. Thanks for that Eilene. I do remember the “Tent Revivals” while growing up. The Revivalist came to town once a year, complete with a huge tent, the folding chairs, “piano” and music director. The tent was lighted by “gasoline lamps” hanging above, to light them at night.

    I remember one night in a terrible rain storm one such tent collapsed near Many Louisiana, and we had to crawl out from under that huge almost flat wet tent, fortunately the gas lanterns did not set it on fire and no one was badly hurt.. I remember when the tent started to come apart, the evangelists, who’s name was “Jack Frost” asked: “is something a happening”~? There was a later televangelist by that same name.

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    1. That’s a wild story! Was this in the 60s? I’ll bet it was quite an experience. My ancestors used to go to camp meetings in the mid-19th century. These revivals lasted several days. They were Methodists.


      1. Oh No~! This was about 1943, The place where that revival was bring held had been on the location of very old Fort Jessup, west of Many Louisiana, which dated back to the early 1800’s in what was then a “no man’s land” called the “Sabine Strip” between the newly purchased Louisiana territory and Mexico (now Texas), but was still a “no man’s land” claimed both by Spain and the US. You may have run across this in your research. Jack Frost was rather deaf, so spoke very loud, not needing any amplification~!

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      2. Yes the Methodist were very active in this type of evangelism and this encampment started out as Methodist but had become Nazarene by the time I attended. My mother drug us to three different ones during our summer vacation. one there and others at Pilot Point Texas and South Louisiana, near Lake Charles. A (little bit of) fun but mostly sitting on uncomfortable home made benches listening to how we were ALL going to HELL if we did not live up to their idea of how we should live.

        My mothers father was an itinerant Methodist minister, and if a large enough congregation came out of their preaching they then built a little church for the new congregation. When I say they “built a church”, they did exactly that, with hammer saw and nails, all coming together. I have photos of these little churches.

        My mother had two brothers who followed their dad, one Methodist and the other a Baptist~!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Fascinating history. I think that sort of worship held on longer in the Deep South than in the North. I was reading recently about the development of the concepts of heaven and hell. By the time the evangelical movement was in full swing the threat of hell had become rather potent.


  3. What a fascinating bit of history. I had no idea they had “travelling churches” – then again, I don’t know why I’m so surprised.. what a horrid way to meet his maker…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That was interesting Eilene. I’ve never heard of traveling chapels and how trains would be packing people into a train functioning as a church. It was a good idea. Back in the Summer of 2020, I used to pass a large church who held their services outside due to Covid. I marveled seeing these people, up until chilly Fall when they were huddled under quilts or blankets listening to sermons. Evidently that church had no online services.

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      1. Yes it did. I would have loved to pass this post onto the blogger’s husband who loved trains and sang in the church choir. Unfortunately he is no longer with us. John really enjoyed your train station posts you did last year, or the year before.

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      2. His grandson has taken over his model train – by model, I mean it is a train one can ride (I don’t remember the ratio of how much the size is to scale). The train club has laid tracks through a forest to put their trains onto the tracks – it is quite an elaborate set-up.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I think part of it wasn’t the class or the instructor so much as my own initiative to come home and look stuff up on my own. We don’t do enough to encourage independent learning, in my humble opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. They sure are. They’re so busy keeping their kids occupied with sports and dance and games on phones that kids have no time to be bored. Boredom is an incredible thing because it causes us to look around us and to develop a curiosity about the world. Without curiosity, there is nothing

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      3. You’re singing my song, Brandi! I was told to either get out of the house and entertain myself, go practice my horn, or read a book. I preferred the first and third to the the second every time!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve hit on a good point. Circuit riders couldn’t cover nearly as much territory and always had to stay in other people’s home, which I imagine was not always pleasant. Even tiny private quarters would likely have been preferable.


  5. Always interesting here at your site. I never knew. Here in New England, literally every little town has at least one white church with steeple. There may not be much else, but you can almost always find a white church with an interesting history going back to the original settlers.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, I had no idea these chapel cars existed! Fascinating. And poor Rev. Wheeler–sad ending there. Wonderful you could see one of these cars in person. And I’m interested in the etymology of colporter. French, do doubt. A peddler or seller with a collar (col), ie., a religious hawker of sorts?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I saw the car in South Dakota, I had no clue what a rarity it was. I sort of thought, “Oh, there must have been a bunch of these at one time.” Not so. Also, they started much later than I would have expected.

      Liked by 1 person

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