This church on wheels was built in 1893, the brainchild of Rev. Boston Smith who was supervisor of the missionaries in Minnesota for the Baptist Home Mission Society in the 1890’s. Between 1891 and 1915, seven of the Chapel Cars were built by the Barney and Smith Car Co. or Dayton, Ohio. These seven cars were sponsored and operated by the American Baptist Publication Society and traveled throughout the United States spreading the message of Christianity.
Additionally, three Chapel Cars were sponsored by the Episcopal Church and another three by the Catholic Church from the late 1890’s to the 1940’s when the churches discontinued their railroad missionary efforts.
Serving the western states
Emmanuel, the second Baptist car to be commissioned, traveled mainly throughout the western and northwestern United States. A great deal of time was spent in the frontier towns of Arizona, Colorado, and California. The Burlington Northern Railroad agreed to pull Emmanuel from town to town free of charge. The Chapel Cars sidetracked mainly at smaller, rural towns where few, if any, churches had been established. During the stay in a town, church services and Sunday schools were held, marriages and baptisms were performed and residents were counseled.
The pastor or “colporter”, as he was called, was in charge of the Chapel Car operation. Life was difficult on the traveling Chapel Cars due to the tiny living quarters. Consequently, the pastor was often single or, if married, the couple had no children.
Emmanuel traveled the railways from 1893 to 1942 when it was retired from missionary service and moved to Swan Lake, near Viborg, South Dakota. Here it was used for a number of years as a meeting room at the Baptist camp.
The road to Prairie Village at Madison
In the early 1950’s Emmanuel was sold to the Brandt Engineering Co., a salvage business in Sioux Falls, SD. Here it was stripped of its metal and used for storage. Emmanuel came to Prairie Village, Madison, South Dakota, in 1972, a gift from Dina Brandt Holgate who was then the owner of Brandt Engineering.
The pump organ is not the original one, but very similar. Since the original pews had been removed, new pews were built by Gary Fawbush of Madison for Emmanuel. Blueprints of the original pews were found in Pennsylvania to work from. Pews can still be purchased as a memorial for a loved one. The small pews are $300 and the larger ones cost $350. A brass plate is affixed to the pew recognizing the donor and memorial.
The interior of the car is solid oak and the exterior is catalpa wood. About 40 gallons of stripper were used to remove the old varnish. The blackened wood was then sanded, stained and varnished. The ceiling, upper glass and most of the lower windows have been replaced. Two new windows and wood had to be installed to cover a hole in the east side of the car.
Each chapel car had its own brass lectern. The one in Emmanuel was a gift from a woman in New York and her name is engraved on the plate at the bottom of the lectern.
First Pastor dies in train wreck – car survives fire
The stained glass window on the interior door is also original. This door separated the living quarters from the chapel area. The picture is of Rev. E. G. Wheeler, the first colporter to travel with Emmanuel. Rev. Wheeler died in a train wreck in 1985 after he and his wife had left Emmanuel in Sacramento, California, for repairs. As they left the car, Rev. Wheeler said, “Goodbye dear old chapel car, but not for long.”
Two days later they were on an Atlantic and Pacific train bound for home in Winona, Minnesota. Passing through New Mexico, the train hit a washout and Rev. Wheeler was thrown from the car when it went off the track. Miraculously, Mrs. Wheeler was not seriously injured.
After Wheeler’s death, the stained glass window with his image was installed in the car. Emmanuel also survived a serious incident in 1929 in Colorado when it was struck by lightning and caught fire. The interior of the car was seriously damaged by the fire, but the exterior was saved. It was repaired and continued its mission for a number of years.
The restoration continues
Emmanuel is still under restoration and has benefited with financial help from American Woodmen of America and the South Dakota Questers. The Madison Kiwanis Club has helped with the exterior painting and serve as hosts and hostesses during the Prairie Village Jamboree.
The car is listed on the South Dakota Register and the National Register of Historic Places, a special designation for historic preservation efforts. Emmanuel is the oldest of just three Baptist Chapel cars left in existence, the others being Grace which has been preserved at Green Lake Wisconsin and Messenger of Peace which is in the process of being restored in Snoqualmie, Washington. Click here for information on the Chapel Cars of America.
Jacquie wrote a book about the story of the American Baptist Chapel Cars from being inspired by a close friend who was devoted to preserving the history of the Baptist Chapel Cars that served the small towns on the rails. Jacquie McKeon passed away on November 2nd, 2000 at the age of 74 but her work will live on with the preservation of the 1893 “Emmanuel” Chapel Car at Prairie Village and the sales of her book “IF THAT DON’T BEAT THE DEVIL” (available for $6.00 by contacting Prairie Village). All proceeds go into the restoration fund of the “Emmanuel”. This 46 page book tells how it all began, story of all the cars and railroad, the role of the Colporter, the mission of the chapel cars, the end of the era and the resurrection of a relic. As Jacquie wrote in a May 14, 1976 Teen Power publication, they were the most unique railroad cars ever designed. The chapel car was Uncle Boston’s dream and how it all got started was written by Jacquie.
The young man had a shocked look on his face as he gazed through the railroad car’s windows. “Now what kind of a car do you reckon that is?” he said, scratching his head. After being told that it was a “chapel car,” and that a minister and his wife lived in it, he shouted, “Well, I’ve seen a cattle car, a hog car, a smoking car, a baggage car, a passenger car, and a sleeping car, but I’ll be blessed if I ever saw a car like that-if that don’t beat the devil!”
Just then, a young minister appeared at one of the car windows and said, “Yes, brother, that’s just exactly what the car was built for-to beat the devil.”
From “Uncle” Boston Smith, the first chapel car missionary, to Mr. and Mrs. Howard Parry, who were among the last, their purpose remained the same: to preach and teach the Gospel. Their major targets were the thousands of settlers who had scrambled from the East in the 1880’s to claim their special spots in the Wild West as homesteaders. Many of those first settlers were devout Christians, but they had left their churches behind them.
Today, hundreds of churches throughout the West are the direct results of railroad chapel cars, which were specially designed for their unique purpose.
The chapel car began as Boston Smith’s dream during the late 1800’s. He felt that if people didn’t have a church to go to, then surely there must be a way to take a church to them. Boston Smith was almost obsessed by the desire to provide Sunday Schools for children. He once said, “Where will the church be tomorrow if there are no Sunday Schools today?” The children to whom he devoted his life returned that affection. Early in his ministry in Minnesota, they dubbed him “Uncle” Boston.
The Emmanuel Chapel Car is one of seven Chapel Cars that were built by the Barney Smith Car Company and dedicated at the annual Baptist Convention in Denver, Colo. on May 26, 1893. The Emmanuel served the western states of the U.S. until the 1940’s when permanent churches were being established in communities. Emmanuel is only one of two wooden body chapel car left in existence today and with the vision of the late Jacquie McKeon to restore this piece of history we all now get to enjoy this beautiful chapel car and its history.
The chapel car is equipped with an upper and lower berth sleeping quarters, kitchen with a copper lined sink connected to a tank over-head, an Adams Westlake improved stove, sideboard, china closet, linen press and lavatory. Living quarters contained a study, dining room, writing desk, book shelves to the top of the car and a large wardrobe and locker. The living area was 160 sq. feet, 10’X16′.
The chapel car is 60′ long, built of wood on a metal chassis and had trucks assembled from wood and metal which are in need of restoration. The Emmanuel Chapel Car was dedicated in Denver, Colo. in May of 1893 and served the west and northwest of the United States.