In the unchurched towns of the American West, railroad chapel cars brought religion where saloons and brothels ruled. The Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie is restoring one such car, the Messenger of Peace, that traveled this state.
A remarkable and little-known piece of history of the American West is being restored inside a locomotive shop at the Northwest Railway Museum in the small town of Snoqualmie.
It is a wooden railway car — the Messenger of Peace — built specifically to be a church on wheels and bring religion to the unchurched towns that popped up as the railroads expanded.
Oh, there was plenty of God’s work to do.
“When folks moved here from the East, they had to prioritize what to invest in. It wasn’t culture or religion. They were trying to get the economy going,” says John Findlay, professor of the American West and the Pacific Northwest at the University of Washington.
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“That was true especially in mining towns or lumber camps. These were places without families — women or children. In this male environment, they wanted to get in, get rich, get out … It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in God. But church attendance wasn’t as important as back East. People didn’t have friends looking over their shoulders.”
The Messenger was one of 13 such chapel cars that spread the gospel. From 1898 to 1948, it rolled through places like Spokane, Pasco, Arlington, North Bend and Chehalis. Of the 50 years it was used to preach, the Messenger visited 11 states, but half of its time was in Washington.
Only half of those 13 cars still exist. The others ended up junked, discards of a bygone era.
The Messenger didn’t go to the scrapheap because of Art Hodgins, a Snohomish man described by his family as someone who simply liked trains.
He put the Messenger in his family’s backyard.
The West has a long history of not being particularly interested in organized religion.
A vivid description of life in those early western towns is given by Wilma Rugh Taylor and her husband, Norman Thomas Taylor, in a painstakingly researched 1999 book titled, “This Train Is Bound for Glory: The Story of America’s Chapel Cars.”
Especially along Union Pacific routes, which also operated in this state, they wrote, “were the hell-on-wheels towns … flimsy tents and dirt hovels populated by saloon keepers, gamblers, and desperadoes of every kind, plus the soiled doves who flocked wherever the men settled.”
In a phone interview, Wilma Taylor tells of how the wealthiest people in these towns tended to be the saloon owners.
“A traveling minister was welcome to come and preach at a tavern, as long as he got on the next train and left,” she says. “The saloon owners didn’t want permanent religion. The next thing you know, they’ve got little old ladies with axes.”
A religious couple, the Taylors brought that perspective to their book:
“But God was not ticketless as the rails stretched from coast to coast … because of the prayers and actions of God-inspired men and women, thirteen chapel cars — three Episcopal, three Catholic and seven Baptist — were hauled across many of the same tracks … Their destination: heaven.”
Ironically, her husband died in 2007 when he fell off a ladder while doing restoration work on a chapel car in Wisconsin.
The only reason the Messenger ended up in the museum is that after it had been turned into a roadside diner in 1949 along Highway 2 in Snohomish — and then was scheduled to be destroyed in the 1970s because of work on that road — Hodgins offered to move it to his home in that same town. He would drive by the diner on his way to work as an electrician.
By then the Messenger had been abandoned and left in bad shape. Hodgins got the car for $1.
“My dad was a pretty eccentric character,” says his son, Hal Hodgins, of Gig Harbor. “Like he had a fascination with stopping rust. We had an old woodie station wagon, and we spent years sandpapering it.”
The son says the 80-foot car was set up as a rec room, “a man cave,” with antiques, a woodstove, record player and a conductor’s hat that dad wore.
“My mom was very accommodating. My dad was very lucky when he married her,” Hodgins says.
By the time Art Hodgins died in 2005, he’d had the 60,000-pound car moved — for $10,000 — to his retirement place in Grayland along the coast.
The sons were trying to decide what to do with the Messenger when they were told about the Northwest Railway Museum.
Museum officials were thrilled to add the chapel cars to their collection of locomotives, passenger and freight cars and other big rail equipment.
The museum also operates a five-mile running rail line between Snoqualmie and North Bend.
In a blog for the museum, Richard Anderson, its executive director, wrote:
“I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking history was all dates, wars and Important Names. But the word ‘story’ is in there for a reason.”
Anderson went on, “… the chapel car attracted people who as a rule never set foot inside a church. One pastor said, ‘… this is the story everywhere. The compactness, the dignity, the simple beauty of the car wins the people.’
“Well, maybe dignity wasn’t always what drew people. ‘I’ve been to a good many circuses, and I’ve seen all the grandest exhibitions that have come west,” said one man, ‘But this is the biggest show yet.’ “
In those days, it indeed would have been a show.
The Messenger came with 17 rows of pews that could seat 85 worshippers. It had an organ, a lectern and a phonograph donated by Thomas Edison.
In September 2007, the chapel car was placed on a heavy-haul truck trailer and made its journey to its new home.
The museum has spent some $400,000 in grants and donations in restoring the car to strict historical standards as defined by the Department of the Interior.
The wooden structure has basically been stripped down to its frame.
But now visitors will be able to walk through and imagine what services were like, and see the tiny 9-foot-square room in the back that was the lodging for the preacher and his wife. Things were so compact that they couldn’t even sleep in the same bed, but on two Pullman berths, upper and lower.
Work on the Messenger of Peace is expected to be finished next summer and it’ll be put on display.
The chapel car will include a plaque thanking Art Hodgins for saving history from the junkyard.
Hal Hodgins says he remembers his dad, who didn’t have much money, trying his best to remove rust from metal on the car’s roof using just a screwdriver.
Says the son about this final journey for the Messenger, “If his spirit is aware, I’m sure he’s very happy.”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org