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The Other Cathedral Car


Religion has always played an important role throughout the history of North Dakota. As early as 1780, Jesuit missionaries were administering to the inhabitants of the Red River Valley. When the area was settled in the Nineteenth Century, the religious practices of these immigrants came with them, and churches were built in the larger communities and on the Indian reservations.

But North Dakota was a large state with a mostly rural population, and Bishop William David Walker of the Episcopal Church hit upon the idea of using a traveling church to administer to his flock. He designed a railroad car that could be used to bring the services to the small communities. Donations came from all across the United State and it was designated as the Cathedral Car when it began running the rails in North Dakota in 1890. Built by the Pullman Palace Car Company, it served for approximately ten years ending its days in Carrington. While this was the first railroad chapel car in North Dakota, it would not be the last.

When the Indian reservation around Fort Totten was created in 1867, it contained close to 230,000 acres within its boundaries. In the middle of this, St. Michael's Mission was established in approximately 1884, and it continues to this day be a center for what is now known as the Spirit Lake Nation. On the eastern edge of the reservation sits the small community of Tokio. In the 1930s it had a population of 112. The priests at St. Michael's Mission, located ten miles away, provided for the religious needs of this community. Services were held in the school when possible, but the parishioners desired a church. A priest from the Mission conceived upon the idea of obtaining a railroad car. An old coach, used by the Great Northern Railroad as a tool shop, was donated to the cause in late 1937.

The coach's old restroom became a confessional. Benches without backs provided seats, and a rough altar was built. But when winter arrived, the old structure provided little comfort from the elements. Snow drifted through the loose windows and the cracks in the walls and it lacked decent heating, yet services continued throughout the winter.

As funds became available, members of the parish, under the direction of Father Baltz, made improvements on what the good Father had come to call his cathedral. On this date in 1939, their progress was reported. The windows and interior were improved and Frank Davis donated two stoves for the winter months. The Grey Nuns from St. Michael's donated an old organ. The coach was painted white and a belfry was built, topped with a cross. It may not have been as fancy as the first one, but it was North Dakota's other Cathedral car.

By Jim Davis


"God Giveth the Increase, The History of the Episcopal Church in North Dakota" by Robert Wilkins and Wynona Wilkins, 1959

The Record, August, Volume 1, #4, 1895

The Devils Lake World, January 11, 1939

"North Dakota Place Names" by Douglas Wick