The Merci Train: 49 Boxcars Filled With Gratitude

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On February 3, 1949, a crowd of over 25,000 gathered at New York Harbor to see the arrival of a merchant ship named Magellan. On the side of the French freighter was painted the words "MERCI AMERICA". Aboard was forty-nine French railroad box cars filled with tens of thousands of gifts donated by French citizens. This was the Merci Train, a token of appreciation to the people of the US from the people of France, for the 700 boxcars of food and relief materials that Americans had sent to war-torn Europe in 1947.

The 700-car Friendship Train sent by the Americans was the brainchild of Drew Pearson, an American newspaper columnist and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Pearson was in Europe when he noticed that the Russians were being lauded and 'thanked' for their contributions of a few carloads of grain delivered to Europeans. Being a staunch anti-communist, the great fanfare celebrating these meager gifts rankled Pearson. He believed that the United States could surpass the communists in sending food to the desperate, hungry Europeans.


The West Virginia Merci Train Boxcar, located in Welch at Veteran's Park. Photo credit:

At his initiative, a country-wide effort was launched starting from Los Angles. A train with a dozen boxcars filled with macaroni, sugar, flour and other food supplies left Los Angles on an eleven-day journey across eleven states stopping at more than thirty cities and towns along the way. Newspapers, radios, and local organizations including schools and churches helped spread the concept of Pearson's Friendship Train and urged Americans to donate food and supplies. The response was overwhelming. Food, clothing, fuel and other supplies began to pour in from all states.

When all trains originating from different parts of the country converged in New York, more than 700 boxcars loaded with $40 million worth in relief supplies had been collected. Once in New York, the supplies were unloaded and shipped off to France to be distributed directly to individuals throughout the country.


A boxcar from the Friendship Train. Photo credit:

The following year, Andre Picard, a French railroad worker and war veteran suggested that France reciprocate by sending a gratitude train filled with gifts and mementos from his countrymen. Much of 1948 was spent collecting gifts from individual citizens. They ranged from art, wine, needlework, local specialties, furniture, books, homemade toys and children’s drawings, including a jeweled Legion of Honor medal that reportedly belonged to Napoleon. All in all, over 52,000 gifts were collected. These were crammed into 49 railroad cars, meant to be divided amongst the 48 American states with the remaining car to be shared by Washington D.C and Hawaii. Each boxcar was decorated with a painted 'Gratitude Train' ribbon and with 40 coat-of-arms representing the provinces of France.

The boxcars were the same infamous ones used to transport American troops fighting in Europe during World War I and World War II. Each was about 20.5 feet long and 8.5 feet wide, and could hold forty men or eight horses. Hence the boxcars were also called “forty and eight”. There were no seats, no windows, no toilets, and no sleeping or dining accommodations. Each man had barely enough space to sit down and they had to fit their bodies in rows to have enough room to lie down for sleep. The journeys were up to a week long.


The ship Magellan that brought the Merci Train. Photo credit:

Once the French boxcars arrived in New York, they were loaded onto flatcars and sent off to far corners of the country. The nation's railroads charged no fees for their distribution and the Congress waived off duties. Each state had a reception waiting for their boxcar. The largest and most attended was in New York City where more than 200,000 people turned out to welcome that state's assigned box car. Several states sent their boxcars on tours of the state so everyone could see the car and its contents. The gifts were distributed to museums, hospitals, schools, churches, and other institutions. Some of these could still be seen at museums. Some were sold at auction, with the proceeds going to charity.

Out of the 49 boxcars, 43 survive to this day. They are exhibited in various municipal parks, railroad museums, fairgrounds and Veterans Posts across the country. This webpage list the current location of each boxcar.


A boxcar from the French "Merci train" being received during a ceremony. Photo credit: Abbie Rowe/Wikimedia


The crowd greets Nevada’s Merci Train boxcar. Photo credit:


Ohio's Gratitude Train touring the state on a flatbed truck. Photo credit:


Woman viewing doll display inside Ohio's Gratitude Train. Photo credit:


The Kentucky boxcar is in New Haven at the Kentucky Railway Museum. Photo credit:


An old photo of the Illinois boxcar, which didn’t survive. It is presumed to be scrapped. Photo credit:


The West Virginia Merci Train Boxcar, located in Welch at Veteran's Park. Photo credit:

The Hawaii Merci Train Boxcar (shared by Washington and Hawaii), located on the grounds of the Hawaiian Railway in Ewa, Oahu, a short drive west from Pearl Harbor and Honolulu. Washington DC is rumored to have kept all the gifts loaded in the boxcar, while Hawaii got the empty car. According to Christian Vinaa, however, Hawaii did get some of the gifts. Photo credit:


The Louisiana boxcar is at the Old State Capitol Museum in Baton Rouge. Photo credit:


The Missouri Merci Train Boxcar, located on the grounds of the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. Photo credit:


The Oregon Merci Train Boxcar, located in North Bend, Oregon along the coast near Coos Bay. Photo credit:

Sources: Wikipedia / / / /

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1 comment:

  1. "The following year, Andre Picard, a French railroad worker"
    Should read, "The same year". The Friendship Train cargo arrived in Le Havre, France on December 17, 1947. The Merci Train concept was adopted on December 12, 1947.
    "They ranged from art, wine,"
    Technically, wine and food had been prohibited by the French government. I believe I saw a bottle of stronger liquor (armagnac or cognac, I can't recall exactly) but I have never encountered mention or inventory of a bottle of wine.
    "40 coat-of-arms representing the provinces of France."
    This is still being debated. Were they indeed the provinces of France (the provincial system was replaced by the regional system at the French revolution)?
    "There were no seats, no windows, no toilets, and no sleeping or dining accommodations."
    This is inaccurate. There are mentions of several ways the 40&8 were converted for military usage, including the addition of benches in the boxcar. They remained very crude modes of transportation and were clearly far inferior to the comfortable Pullman that the doughboys might have experienced state side.
    "The journeys were up to a week long."
    Yes and no. It is very unlikely that it took that long for the trains to go from the French East coast (Brest, Le Havre) to the Western Front during WWI. It is possible that the return from Berlin might have been that long during WWII but then, the soldiers would have been transported in different type of boxcars. We wouldn't want to call German boxcars 40&8.
    "A boxcar from the French "Merci train" being received during a ceremony."
    Could read "Washington DC/Territory of Hawaii boxcar being opened during the White House ceremony held on February 6, 1949 at the 14St N.W. rail-road depot, Washington DC"
    "According to Christian Vinaa, however, Hawaii did get some of the gifts."
    And he is very right about it. We are about to release a 30+ pages review on Hawaii and we have a list of about 30 witnessed gifts.


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