Hundreds of North Dakotans boarded a train each Sunday for church services thanks to a bishop's idea

In 1890, a railroad "Cathedral Car" drew worshippers in the new state of North Dakota.

The Rt. Rev. William David Walker, photographed here in 1913.
Contributed / Samuel Hart / Public Domain
We are part of The Trust Project.

FARGO — One year after North Dakota became a state in 1889, the Episcopal bishop for the state implemented something that did not exist in any other state: a mobile church or cathedral. This railroad “Cathedral Car” was the brainchild of William D. Walker, the first Episcopal bishop of northern Dakota Territory.

When Walker first arrived in Dakota in 1884, he observed that a number of Episcopal church members lived in small, scattered communities throughout the territory. Since they could not afford the construction of their own churches, Walker believed the best way to attend to their church needs was to bring the church to them.

Prior to coming to northern Dakota, Walker had been the assistant priest of a wealthy Episcopal church in New York City, and his church members sent him to England on five occasions. From those visits, Walker came to believe that all proper Episcopal churches needed to be built of stone, a more costly building material.

William David Walker was born on June 29, 1839, to James and Mary Walker, in New York City. James was a shoemaker and William was the oldest of at least eight children. After completing his general education in New York, William Walker attended Columbia University where he graduated with an A.B. degree in 1859. He then attended the General Theological Seminary (GTS), “the oldest seminary of the Episcopal Church” in the U.S., which is located in the heart of New York City.

Upon completion of his studies at GTS, Walker was ordained as a deacon and, on June 29, 1862, he was ordained a priest in New York’s Calvary Episcopal Church. He became an assistant minister at Calvary and was put in charge of the chapel connected with that church. The members of Calvary included some of the wealthiest people in America, and regular attendees included members of the Astor and Vanderbilt families. Other Calvary members during Walker’s time at the church included two future U.S. Presidents, Chester A. Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt.


Having a number of rich congregants proved to be very beneficial to Walker because, after he was appointed bishop of northern Dakota, he was able to solicit substantial amounts of money for some of the ambitious projects he implemented in northern Dakota Territory. On Dec. 20, 1883, after 20 years at Calvary, Walker was consecrated as the first “Missionary Bishop of Northern Dakota” by A. Cleveland Coxe, the bishop of Western New York. At the consecration, Coxe talked about the great opportunity that awaited Walker with his new position.

Coxe said, “Dakota is a heritage of magnificent promise, at once animating to our hopes and appalling to our sense of responsibility. Look at its position on the map, the very heart of North America; a future State stretching gigantic arms towards East and West. The Missouri, which splits the continent, is in fact a great Mediterranean.” Coxe further pointed out that “a thousand souls often swarm into Dakota in a single day.”

On his way to Dakota Territory, Walker stopped off at Racine College, an Episcopalian education center in Wisconsin, where he was awarded a doctor of sacred theology degree. He then went by train and arrived in Fargo in early 1884.

At that time, Northern Dakota Territory “consisted of 18 churches and about 35 missions.” According to University of North Dakota historian Robert Wilkins, in his book, "God Giveth the Increase," there were only three clearly identifiable Episcopal churches, and they were located in Fargo, Grand Forks and Bismarck. Another church was under construction in Jamestown. Simple mission churches existed in Wahpeton, Casselton, Forest River, Grafton, Larimore and Mayville. Missions, without church structures, were located in Lisbon, Valley City, Sykeston, Carrington, Bathgate, Mandan, Pembina and Creel City (Devils Lake).

Walker chose Fargo, home of the Gethsemane Church, as his “See City,” the residential location of the bishop. Gethsemane Church then became the Gethsemane Cathedral. He established a diocesan building committee “to assist parishes in church construction and to see to it that the churches were liturgically correct.”

Up until the arrival of Walker, all of the early churches in what is now North Dakota were wooden structures. He insisted that all new Episcopalian churches be made of stone and based this decision on Matthew 16:18 of the Bible: “Upon this rock I will build my Church.” He believed this was especially important on the Northern Plains, which were subject to violent winds, tornadoes and prairie fires. Twice, Gethsemane had been blown off of its foundation by high winds. Walker also pointed out that “native stone was one of the few naturally occurring building materials in North Dakota.”

On most of his building projects, Walker hired George Hancock, from Fargo, as his architect. Hancock was born, raised and educated in England, and was well-versed with the architectural designs of the Anglican/Episcopal churches in that country. Because of his wealthy friends on the East Coast, Walker was able to proceed with an ambitious church-building project. During the 1880s, Episcopalian churches were built in Casselton, Mayville, Lakota, Lisbon, Buffalo and Devils Lake.

One of Walker’s official duties was to serve as a missionary. He spent considerable time working with the Chippewa on the Turtle Mountain Reservation and also devoted time at missions in Fort Totten and the Standing Rock Reservation. In 1887, he was appointed to the Board of Indian Commissioners. The board was “a committee that advised the federal government on Native American policy and inspected supplies delivered to Indian agencies to ensure the fulfillment of government treaty obligations.”


Most of Walker’s goals were being met. The one that he believed was unfulfilled was tending to the ministerial needs of the people living in small communities. He then came up with the idea of having a church on wheels, where he could periodically visit those communities and preach the gospel to them. He pitched this idea to his friends back East and they approved of his plan.

Walker’s largest contribution came from Cornelius Vanderbilt and further funds for his Chapel Car “soon became a nationwide cause in Episcopal dioceses across the nation where funds were raised at churches by bake sales, parish contributions, and donations.” When enough money was raised, Walker commissioned the Pullman Company in Chicago to build his car. On Oct. 30, 1890, the “Cathedral Car of North Dakota” was delivered to Fargo, and after Walker made a few alterations, he was ready to take his church on the road.

We will conclude the story of Bishop William D. Walker next week.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at

What to read next
Owner of local pet grooming business, who has long adopted older dogs, takes in celebrity couple from Homeward Animal Shelter
"Minding Our Elders" columnist Carol Bradley Bursack says distance makes keeping track of your parents' health harder, but barring dementia, they get to choose where they live.
Don Kinzler also answers questions about pear trees that can produce fruit in the region and when to dig up onions.
The work of Helen Hughes Dulany was elaborately displayed in some of the leading magazines of the era and Helen was contracted to design products for some of the largest companies in the U.S.