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.
In college, my American Westward Movement professor radically transformed my tinder-dry concept of history. He sat back, put his feet on his desk and filled the hour with stories. The voices of nameless, lonely women going crazy on the Great Plains where the wind never ceased, and of countless families mournfully giving up their most cherished objects to lighten their load as they rolled west, have never left me.
So it’s pretty cool when a museum finds just the right object to ignite interest and, better yet, insight into the lives of those who came before us. Chapel Car 5 Messenger of Peace is one such object. It’s not that Important Names weren’t associated with this railway car. They were. Thomas Edison provided phonographs for most of the chapel cars - attracting even the non-religious. And W.C. Coleman (an Important Name to the campers among us) installed his new lighting system free of charge when he saw for himself the need for brighter, more reliable light.
But they’re not what make Chapel Car 5 Messenger of Peace nationally significant. The car’s uncelebrated role in “taming the West” - the number of ordinary lives touched and townscapes altered - infuse it with enduring meaning.
“The scenes of the last few days haunt me,” wrote Reverend Neil in 1900. Rev. Neil, accompanied by his wife Nellie, was the first pastor aboard Chapel Car 5. He was in Missouri, stunned by the superstition, drunknenness and lack of education prevalent there. Rev. and Mrs. Neil’s work not only resulted in the establishment of Sunday Schools and churches. Secular schools were erected in at least two Missouri communities as well.
Further west, 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."
Chapel Car 5 has carried many things. Now it’s carrying stories into the 21st Century. You’ll have an unprecedented opportunity to hear stories of Rev. Neil and those whose lives the chapel car touched, during a theatrical presentation Friday, March 4, at the Salish Lodge & Spa. Hosted by the Northwest Railway Museum, “Working on the Railroad” includes chapel car stories, a delicious dinner and a small silent auction, all near the famous Snoqualmie Falls, from 6:00-9:00 PM. Tickets must be purchased in advance; proceeds benefit Chapel Car 5.
Illustration above of Thomas Edison speaking into phonograph courtesy FCIT