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A Chapel Car: The Gospel on Rails

April 07, 2021 - 00:00
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    The “Good Will” Chapel Car t made its way through Eagle Lake and surrounding areas in the late 1800s. The train was sent from New York to Texas to serve the spiritual needs of people living along rail stops, especially workers.
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    Locals attending church pose with their Chapel Car on the Texas rails.

Can you imagine a Chapel on Rails? Human imagination has no limits. When Texas was developing and there were few churches, especially for railroad workers and small towns, a special car rolled in, disengaged, and remained for a while for the spreading of the Good News. It was called a Gospel Train.

I’ve never seen an old iron locomotive, wooden boxcar or caboose, nor heard a distant steam engine whistle without feeling both nostalgia and reverence. These old friends, now mostly gone, connected country stops with towns, families with friends, commerce with markets, and imaginations beyond the prairie horizon.

From cattle cars to freight wagons, from circus trains to the beloved two-car “Dinky,” and even a Gospel Car for saving souls, rails have been at the center of Eagle Lake’s beginnings and history as the third stop on Texas’ first railroad.

The familiar Gospel tune, “This Train is Bound for Glory,” often heard inside the country churches, was a descriptor of perhaps a most important and least-known role of the early Texas trains – to “save souls and to settle the vast frontier.”

These early railroad “churches on wheels,” called Chapel Cars, were built in America, and were later brought to Texas to bring religion and civilization to small, often temporary railroad towns where saloons and makeshift housing became the workers’ headquarters. It was difficult in those days for family life to take hold. To recruit newcomers to areas where lawlessness and roughness were a way of life was almost impossible.

Because these railroad towns were often temporary, with employees moving with the railhead while the line was being constructed, there were few or no churches, and little opportunity for spiritual development. As pioneers and settlers made their way across Texas, if there were to be a religious service it was often held outside, with baptisms in a nearby river. It was not easy for ministers and their families to reach the vast frontier by wagon alone, until the rail cars connected them.

In 1895, a small chapel car called the “Good Will,’ was sent from New York to Texas to begin its mission as a church car to serve the spiritual needs of people along the rail stops. As one old-timer put it, “Well, I’ve heard of everything now – a train to save souls. What the devil is that?” While most had heard of flat cars, produce cars, hog cars, and cattle cars, a church on wheels was hard to imagine.

The Good Will Chapel Car hooked on to the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio (GH&- SA) and other lines, making its stops along side tracks for several days along each route. It came through Eagle Lake in 1896, and was known to make mission stops in Richmond, Sealy, Columbus, La Grange, Hallettsville, Flatonia, and San Antonio. It traveled throughout Texas along the border of Mexico, and through northeast Texas, bringing the gospel, and saving souls as it went.

Normally, a pastor and his wife would serve the people inside the chapel car, complete with pews, hymnals, bibles, and even an organ. The couples had a small living space, vestry, and kitchen, where they made their home on the rails. It was not an easy life, and required dedication and hard work. Some, with difficulty, had children with them. Others sent them to be with family members.

When not holding services, the pastor and his wife visited the sick and the faithful, cleaned and prepared the car, and announced the arrival and program of the chapel car. When news spread of its arrival, people came from the countryside, as well. When local services were completed, the railroad locomotive and train, on its journey, would pick up the car and take it to the next stop.

When the crowds were too large, the services were held outdoors either along the car at the track, or in the town center. Pastors were known to go into the saloons to issue the invitation to the chapel car service to the men at the bars. And good crowds did come, perhaps, at first, by curiosity. Later, crowds of women and children attended, as well.

The Texas Chapel Car Good Will suffered the devastating hurricane of 1900, while at its station in Galveston. Although damaged, it survived, and was soon returned to its gospel mission along the rails, serving Texas until going north in 1905. It was built for the American Baptist Publication Society.

From 1890 through World War One, thirteen chapel cars, three Episcopal, three Catholic, and seven Baptist traveled the rails of the nation’s railroads. Wellequipped with pews, organs, and stained-glass windows, they were hauled by railroad companies without charge, to spread the gospel, recognizing that the “railroads alone could not build a nation.”

The first chapel car was conceived by an Episcopal Bishop of North Dakota in 1883, after visiting the chapel cars of the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia. He received a large donation from Cornelius Vanderbilt, president of the New York Central Railroad. Two of the thirteen chapel cars were built by the Pullman Car Company of Chicago. The rest were built by the Barney and Smith Car Builders of Dayton, Ohio. All chapel cars were privately owned by denominations, and were never the property of a particular railroad.

The cars were ornately decorated and made of wood inside and out. Some had chandeliers, painted ceilings, brass altars, and could seat from 50-70 people. Services would accommodate workers’ schedules, including night shifts.

These churches on rails helped America to settle the West, bringing the gospel and the sacraments to people along the railroads, ministering to thousands of small towns, railroad workers, settlers, and their families. They were often the precursors of the local churches.

While the chapel car story may be a lesser-known part of Texas and local history, it is warmly an American story of vision, faith, courage, and dedication. Though many cars were dissembled over time, several have been resurrected and preserved as icons of the Christian mission-bound train cars in the settling of a young state and nation. These trains were bound for Glory.