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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.