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Glory Bound

Chapel Cars Come to West Virginia

By Wilma Rugh Taylor

Chapel railroad car
Chapel cars brought missionaries and their message to remote coal and timber communities in many parts of West Virginia during the early 20th century. The Messenger of Peace, shown here, came to Thurmond, Fayette County, in 1911.

In the fall of 1911, along the lines of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, an unusual railroad car crawled along the New River Gorge on its way to the mining town of Thurmond Station. Gilded letters on the sides of the 85 foot varnished wood car announced “American Baptist Publication Society” and “Chapel Car Messenger of Peace.” The purpose of this unique car was to bring the gospel to what Virginia Baptist missionary A.B. Withers called “the wickedest county in the state,” attested to by Fayette County’s contribution to the population of the West Virginia State Penitentiary.

Thurmond itself was an island of sanity in a sea of immorality because of the strict moral code of the town’s founder, Captain William Dabney Thurmond, but saloons like the Black Hawk, South Side, and Stackalee thrived in the Ballyhack district across the New River, where most of the crime occurred. [See “Thurmond: Change Continues for a New River Town,” by W. Hodding Carter; Summer 1995.]

The Reverend and Mrs. Thomas R. Gale, missionaries working with the Railroad YMCA, came to help build a facility to provide the C&O rail workers with a wholesome haven from the desultory life of the saloons and brothels. Withers reported of the mission, “[Gale] has shaken Thurmond to its foundations. More than 50 people here have been converted, most of them railroad men.”


You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.