Faron Wahl, Manager
The more I pause to contemplate the generations of stories surrounding us here, the longer it makes me pause. I often realize we’re not even scratching the surface of each story of our forebears’ ways of life, their joys and struggles.
For example, it’s all too easy to walk past our chapel car Emmanuel, or even step into it, and think simply that it’s a snazzy old rail car. But this living remnant of our past begs more of us than just an affirming look. Its story is nothing short of astounding, yet thousands pass by it along Lake Herman’s shore and don’t give it a second glance.
The chapel car Emmanuel is one of the most esteemed possessions charged to our care here at the village. Built in 1893, and one of only thirteen chapel cars ever created, it worked for 50 years bringing church to the wild and spiritually deprived rail lines of the west.
This restored gem, like our carousel set to return this year, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of us have forgotten that Governor Janklow proclaimed May 22, 1983 “Chapel Car Emmanuel Day”. And several times during the year I get contacted by someone halfway across the country, questioning if the Emmanuel really does still exist, and if it really lives at humble Prairie Village. This is a big deal.
We hold church services in the Emmanuel twice annually – on the Sundays of Railroad Days and Jamboree. It’s quite the unusual opportunity to climb into this beautiful museum piece and actually attend church, reliving the car’s very historic purpose for being. During Railroad Days this past weekend, I managed to squeeze the service into my day, joined by my wife who was here with me for part of the weekend.
As Pastor Krahling started the service, our beloved steam locomotive #29 was busy just to our west. We were interrupted momentarily by 29’s whistle signaling a reverse move, followed by its unmistakable chuff as it began moving back to couple onto a pair of passenger cars and a caboose. In addition to the sight of it rolling tender-first past us, with its sounds drowning out all others, the smell of soot and cinders through a couple of open windows topped off the sensory experience.
As the working sounds of steam subsided the service continued, but I was caught up for a moment visualizing how similar the setting must have been for countless folks attending services in this very car, positioned in rough western start-up settlements 100 years ago. Emmanuel’s lifetime mission of temporary placements amounted to sitting on gritty sidings, often in locations with rail activity going on around it.
And we weren’t sitting in a replica last Sunday – this is the Emmanuel, the real article. Pastor Krahling stood right where previous leaders stood, sharing scripture and a message that might have been just like ones offered decades ago. As Donna Mathison belted out “Blessed Assurance” on the pump organ, requiring the services of both her arms and legs at the same time, we sang this hymn likely sung many times in the same setting – albeit perhaps on a siding in Missoula, Montana in 1916.
What was the chatter between people as they came and went to the services in this railroad chapel? I tried to imagine the clothes, the mannerisms, and the social interaction of folks who sat so many years ago right where I was sitting. It was the same chapel car, perhaps with a similar steam locomotive switching cars nearby, but in a fascinatingly different era and time. It took effort to pull myself back to 2017 and pay attention.
It’s too easy to believe that the present is the most important stop on the timeline of history. But whoever attended Emmanuel’s services 101 years ago on July 2, 1916 (yes, that was a Sunday) likely thought the same about present-day back then. We would do well to regularly take a few minutes and drift back, imagining the descriptive details of what might have been. We owe it to those who were here ahead of us.