A beautiful train car, the Messenger of Peace, sits in the Train Shed Exhibit Building at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie. To understand the history of this train car, you have to go back to when the railroad was growing in the late 19th century.
As Americans made their way across the country to the West, religious leaders sought to find a way to expand their mission services. However, the nomadic nature of frontier communities, which would spring up overnight after discovery of gold and then shut down as people moved on to the next big find, also meant there was no guarantee for consistent donations for churches. This unique situation prompted an innovative approach to evangelism- the “Chapel Car”.
The first chapel car was developed after William David Walker, an Episcopal Bishop of North Dakota, toured chapel cars during a trip to Siberia in 1899. Upon his return, Walker fundraised $3,000 to build The Church of the Advent- The Cathedral Car of North Dakota. The train was ready on November 13, 1890, and Walker relied on the local railroads’ willingness to pull the chapel car without charge. Walker would notify locales in advance of the train’s arrival, and the car where he would conduct services would be temporarily housed near the local railroad station.
Shortly after the debut of The Church of the Advent chapel car, others followed. In total, thirteen cars are known to have existed, representing Baptist, Catholic and Episcopal churches. The cars, in use from the 1890s to 1930s were designed to provide both a place for religious services and living quarters for the missionary pastors. The fronts of the cars were fitted out as churches on wheels with altars, pews, and in some cases, stained glass windows.
The Messenger of Peace, a Baptist chapel car dedicated on May 21, 1898, was paneled in oak and could seat up to 90 worshipers. It was also known as the “Ladies’ Car” because it was built with $100 donations from 75 Baptist women who were interested in promoting temperance. In 1904, it went on display at the Palace of Transportation at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition where it received first prize in a railroad car exhibit. The Baptist Church had a chapel car fleet of seven cars, all built by Barney & Smith during the years 1890 to 1913. Thomas Edison, though not a member of the church, donated phonographs for all the chapel cars.
Over its 50 years of religious duty, the Messenger of Peace visited Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Illinois, West Virginia, Montana, Nevada, California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, with additional stops in Canada. It put in an appearance at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, where it was said to have inspired the Catholic chapel cars. In 1910 it started an 18-month stint as part of the Railroad YMCA, returning to service with the American Baptist Publication Society in October, 1911.
The Messenger of Peace was notable for its many years of service in Washington State. While other chapel cars also played an important role in the settlement and development of the region, no other car could boast the length and breadth of service. In King County alone, the car visited dozens of communities.
In January 1917, the Messenger of Peace visited Issaquah to help bring peace to rioting miners and then went on to help revive a church in North Bend. That church continues today is now known as the North Bend Community Church.
The Messenger of Peace continued to serve the church until 1948 and was the last of the American Baptist chapel cars to be retired. The car was converted to a diner in Snohomish in 1948 and was discovered on private property being used for storage in 1997. In 2007, it was donated to the Northwest Railway Museum, where it was restored by a skilled team of staff and volunteers following the National Park Service Standards of Restoration.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, the Messenger of Peace is a surviving example of a chapel car and late 19th Century wooden railroad car construction. You can visit the Messenger of Peace, in its home at the Train Shed Exhibit Building, during a stop along the 2-hour train excursion hosted by Northwest Railway Museum.