Chapel car becomes a landmark
April 3, 2009
By Michael Rowe
The Messenger of Peace chapel car doesn’t look like a church on rails.
The 100-plus year old train car sits in the Northwest Railway Museum’s preservation center, with tape on its windows and plywood over some sections. Inside the train car, the pews and altar are missing. Like many trains in the museum’s collection, the state of the chapel car can only be described as dilapidated, but one day the Messenger of Peace will be the most significant train car at the museum.
On March 26, the King County Landmarks Commission unanimously approved adding the Messenger of Peace to the county’s list of landmarks. The train car has already been added to the National Register of Historic Sites.
The train car joined the museum’s collection in 2007, when its owner approached the railway museum to take the chapel car.
Museum CEO Richard Anderson learned about chapel cars in the 1990s. When he first heard about the rolling churches, he thought that someone was trying to pull his leg. But what he discovered was that, around the turn of the century, Baptists, Episcopalians and Catholics all operated chapel cars to spread their religions to the less-churched parts of the country.
The Messenger of Peace was built in 1898 and was one of the Baptist chapel cars. Today, it is one of only three cars known to still exist. The train car traveled all over the country, but it spent a significant amount of time in Washington state and King County. The train car’s logbook shows that it stopped in North Bend in March 1917 and in Issaquah that same year. The log indicates that the weather in North Bend wasn’t great, but the services were well-attended.
The car was deconsecrated in 1948 as the need for traveling churches declined. It became the Ritz Limited Café for a time in Snohomish, after the Baptist church transferred possession of the car on the condition that alcohol not be served. The brass pulpit of the train went to Everett’s First Methodist Church, where it still stands. For a while, the car was a cottage, and then it fell into disrepair, until Art Hodgins donated it to the museum.
Emergency work had to be done to keep the train from collapsing in on itself from damage to its structure, caused by a 1941 switching accident and the move to the museum via truck. Now the train will become the focus of restoration work at the museum’s preservation center.
“I have no doubt that the chapel car will be the most significant piece in our collection,” Anderson told the landmarks commission.
To help restore the Messenger of Peace, the museum hired Glenn Guerra, a leading expert on wooden rail cars. Guerra lives in Wisconsin and consults with museums across the country on train preservation issues. A 4Culture grant from King County is paying for Guerra’s services on the train restoration project.
In a discussion, about plans for reconstructing the train at the landmarks commission meeting, Guerra advised that significant portions of the train’s wooden exterior would need to be replaced. He said that the museum should focus its preservation efforts on the train car’s interior. He said that the interior would be what the public sees.
Anderson was asked if the chapel car could be used for weddings once it is restored.
“Absolutely,” Anderson answered.
He said that the museum acquired over 2,000 pages of notes from a researcher who wrote a book about chapel cars, and that the notes would help the museum to restore the Messenger of Peace.
“I feel, no question, that this qualifies as a landmark,” said Landmarks Commissioner Robert Weaver, a Seattle based historic building preservation consultant.