The History of the “Merci Train”
On February 3, 1949, an outdated, World War I-era boxcar arrived in New York City to enormous crowds and great fanfare. The boxcar was paraded through the city streets with tickertape raining down. So what made this boxcar so special? It was part of La Train de la Reconnaissance, or the Merci Train as it was affectionately called in the United States, from the people of France to America in recognition of America’s efforts to send food and supplies to France after World War II.
The Merci Train’s story really begins in the dead of winter in 1947. The war was over, but France was struggling to rebuild with limited resources. To aid France, Americans gathered millions of dollars worth of food and supplies to send to France, where items were distributed across the country using a train, named the “Friendship Train.” For America’s help in the war and providing aid afterward, France wanted to show its gratitude. The idea for a French version of the Friendship Train began in 1948, supposedly as an idea from a French railroad employee. At the time, the French people had nothing more to give than their own possessions, so that is what they gave. Forty-nine boxcars were filled with clothes, furniture, hand sewn patches, books, artwork, jewelry, and more, all donated by individual French people. The boxcars were part of trains used to transport American soldiers during WWI across France and were known as “40 and 8” because of the amount of people (40) or horses (8) the boxcars could hold. The boxcars were sent across the Atlantic on the freighter “Magellan” which had been painted to say “Merci America” on the sides of the ship.
The Magellan docked at Pier H in Weehawken, New Jersey, and from there all forty-nine boxcars of the Merci Train were unloaded. A boxcar was sent to each state with Washington D.C. and the Territory of Hawaii sharing the 49th. The boxcars were decorated with the crests France’s provinces and followed a similar travel route as the Friendship Train of 1947. Boxcars were delivered to the state capitals and many cities organized welcome ceremonies and parades for their own portion of the Merci Train. The contents of the boxcars were distributed amongst institutions such as libraries, schools, and museums.
French “Merci” Train. Special Events Records, Administration, RG 4-1-9, Georgia Archives
Florida’s Merci Train Boxcar and the Ringling Museum Library
On February 11th, 1949, Florida’s boxcar from the Merci Train came to Tallahassee. The boxcar was taken to the Capitol and the items inside were later displayed at the Cherokee Hotel. Items on display included a wedding dress, dolls, handmade handkerchiefs, war medals, knives, paintings, and a huge statue. A monument from the small French town of Brou was included in the boxcar and is currently displayed at the Sauls-Bridges Post 13 of the American Legion in Lake Ella Park, in Tallahassee.
At the Sauls-Bridges Post 13 of the American Legion, Lake Ella (Photo by Eman M. Vovsi)
After the exhibition at the Cherokee Hotel, American Legion and Auxiliary members packed everything back into the Merci Train boxcar except for the large, bulky statue. The boxcar was then taken to Sarasota, FL, for the state Legion convention, April 8-10, 1949. On its visit here, items were displayed at the Sarasota Civic Center, which included the Municipal Auditorium, Sarasota Arts Association, and Chidsey Library. Also part of the Civic Center was the Ft. San Juan Ortiz which displayed “war relics and other items of historical interest.” Once the state Legion convention was over, the Merci Train boxcar was given to the Ft. San Juan Ortiz and many items within the boxcar were donated to the Ringling Museum. Though documentation about what items came to the museum is not available, the books from the Merci Train boxcar were recorded in the library’s accession book as a gift from the Merci Train.
The Merci Train boxcar stayed in Sarasota until 1982, but was largely uncared for. In November of 1982, the 40 and 8, short for “La Societe des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux” an offshoot of the American Legion, took possession of the boxcar and started a fund and club to restore it. The boxcar was transferred to Holly Hill, FL, near Jacksonville, where it sits today in the Veteran’s Memorial Park.
Bennett, Earl R. Sr. (2007). Merci Train. Retrieved from http://mercitrain.org/
Bennett, Earl R. Sr. (2011). Merci Train-Florida. Retrieved from http://mercitrain.org/Florida/
City rates share of ‘Merci’ train. (1949, February 10). St Petersburg Times, p. 8.
Civic center is valuable asset to city. (1949, August 28). Sarasota Herald Tribune, pp. 1, 2.
Conley, Manuel A. LCol. (January 1983). What ever happened to those forty and eights? The Retired Officer, 34-38.
French display opens to public. (1949, February 14). Daily Democrat, p. 1.
French gift train now en route to US. (1949, January 6). Daily Democrat, p. 1.
French Statue in state capitol. (1949, February 27). Daily Democrat, p. 1.
Gratitude car being repacked. (1949, February 21). Daily Democrat, p. 1.
Gratitude train due here today. (1949, February 2). New York Times, p. 13.
Gratitude Train off for South today. (1949, February 5). New York Times, p. 5.
Merci car set for display. (1949, March 27). St Petersburg Times, p. 53.
“Merci” train on way. (1949, February 7). Lawrence Journal-World, p. 1.
Ryan, Joseph A. (1949, February 3). French gift train receives warm welcome on arrival. New York Times, pp. 1, 7.
Seigel, Kalman. (1949, February 4). City roars thanks to France for car of Gratitude Train. New York Times, pp. 1, 3.
Shepherd, Dorothy G. (February 1950). A late sixteenth-century Flemish tapestry. The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 37(2), 24-26.
Stallings, Jean. (1983, January 17). In WWI, getting ‘over there’ wasn’t much fun. St Petersburg Times, pp. 1, 4.