The idea to send a “thank you” gift to the United States for the $40 million in food and other supplies sent to France and Italy in 1947 came from a French railroad worker, and World War IIveteran, named Andre Picard. Donations from the Merci Train came from over six million citizens of France and Italy in the form of dolls, statues, clothes, ornamental objects, furniture, and even a Legion of Honour medal purported to have belonged to Napoleon.
Forty-and-eights were French 4-wheel covered goods wagons used as military transport cars. The term refers to the cars’ carrying capacity, said to be 40 men or eight horses. Built starting in the 1870s as regular freight boxcars, they were originally used in military service by the French army in both World Wars, and then later used by the German occupation in World War II and finally by the Allied liberators.
In 1949, France sent 49 of those boxcars to the United States (one for each state then in existence and one for Washington, D.C. and Hawaii to share) laden with various treasures, as a show of gratitude for the liberation of France. This train was called the Merci Train, and was sent in response to trains full (over 700 boxcars) of supplies known as the American Friendship Train sent by the American people to France in 1947. Each of the Merci Train boxcars carried five tons of gifts, all of which were donated by private citizens.
The Train and all 49 cars arrived aboard the Magellan on February 3, 1949, with over 25,000 onlookers in attendance. On the side of the gift-laden French freighter was painted, “MERCI AMERICA”.Immediately the trains were distributed amongst the states.
Many of the trains were opened and turned into exhibits before distributing the objects as each state saw fit. Most states continued to exhibit the boxcars to the public after their gifts were distributed.
There are approximately 43 of the 49 boxcars still in existence. The state boxcars of Massachusetts, Illinois, Nebraska, Connecticut, and New Jersey are known to have been destroyed. The Colorado boxcar has been missing since 1954, and its fate remains unknown. Most of the surviving boxcars are displayed in various parks and museums in their respective states.