Why (Almost) Every State Has a Train Car From the French

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Source unknown.

In February of 1949, four years following the end of World War II, an exciting shipment arrived in New York City’s harbor. A ship bearing the words, “MERCI AMERICA,” came to port where thousands of on-lookers gathered to see the freighter’s cargo. The Magellan carried 49 boxcars filled to the brim with gifts of gratitude from French and Italian citizens. A train car was designated for each of the 48 states in existence at the time (Hawaii and Alaska gained statehood in 1959), with the 49th’s goods to be split between Washington, D.C. and Hawaii.

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One of the train cars being lifted from the Magellan. Source: MerciTrain.org
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Kentucky’s train car, on display at the Kentucky Railway Museum. Source: Jay Runkle, 2010, on MerciTrain.org.

The “Merci Train” came as a thank you for America’s 1947 shipment of over 700 boxcars of food and supplies worth tens of millions, and for the liberation of Europe, of course. The cars sent, not just the gifts, held particular significance for the American men and women who found themselves in Europe in either World War I or II; the 49 cars used are known as “Forty-and-eights.” This specific type of train car was used most especially for military transport during the conflicts–known to carry either “40 men” or “eight horses.” Thus, the cars that once carried weary men of war now carried gifts of peace.

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Arkansas’ contribution to the 700 boxcars sent to Europe in 1947. Source: Arkansas State Archives.
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A “Forty-and-eight” label from the North Dakota train car. Source: State Historical Society of North Dakota

Grateful allies gave their American friends gifts ranging from the beautiful and rare–like works donated by the Louvre and one-of-a-kind jewelry, to the humble and extremely intimate–like beloved pipes and worn rosaries. Some people sent their military medals to their allied heroes. Some sent handmade items like lace, needlepoint, sketches, and drawings. Still others sent back the things Americans gave them, like cigarettes and chocolate, to show their friends how they kept them alive during the toughest of times.

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A sculpture by Rodin, Suzon, part of Arkansas’ boxcar. Source: MerciTrain.org.
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A copy of the famous “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” part of Idaho’s train. The original is on display at the Louvre. Source: MerciTrain.org
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Millicent Hill wearing a wedding dress included in Illinois’ train car. Many of the 49 cars contained wedding dresses; Connecticut held a competition for the privilege to wear its car’s dress. Source: MerciTrain.org

Other gifts? Children’s toys, dolls (see a few from the Met’s remarkable collection below), books, flagons of wine and barrels of cider, nuts hand-picked from French trees, heartfelt letters, money from all over the world, mementos from wartime imprisonment on stranger shores, sheet music, and much more.

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From the maker of this satin baby cap, translated from the French: “…[my husband] was a member of the Isere ship team that transported the Statue of Liberty to…New York. He was 19 years old.” From Nebraska’s car.

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One of many travel posters sent as part of Arizona’s train car. Source: Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records.

Sadly, some states’ train cars no longer exist, and for others, the accompanying artifacts’ provenance were not recorded. Some states sent all the goods of their cars to museums, others distributed the gifts–most likely the wish of the French and Italian individuals who contributed them at the time. If a state’s car is still around (most of them are), its location can be found on MerciTrain.org.

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South Dakota’s train car, surrounded by snow. Source: MerciTrain.org
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Unpacking the North Carolina car. Source: State Archives of North Carolina.

Whatever the fate of the cars’ and their goods, the Merci Train constitutes, perhaps, the best “thank you note” of all time. The idea came from the mind of an everyday Frenchman–a veteran and railway worker named André Picard, just as the idea for the original French gift to America, the Statue of Liberty, came from one man’s vision over seven decades prior. From military transport to symbols of sincere gratitude, the 49 “Forty-and-eights” are some of the greatest memorials to what the Allies fought for so many years ago.

If you want to learn more about the Merci Train or see more of its amazing gifts, take a look at these sites: MerciTrain.org, North Dakota’s virtual exhibit of gifts, Arizona’s Merci Train collection, and Nebraska’s collection.

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