The historic boxcar will be restored by the Boothbay Railway Village.

AUGUSTA – In early February of 1949, 49 boxcars making up the French Gratitude Train, Le Train de la Reconnaissance Francaise, arrived in the United States. They were filled with gifts from residents of France, sent as a thank-you for the 700 boxcars of food, fuel and clothing sent by U.S. citizens to war-torn France in 1947.

The boxcar that arrived in Maine 60 years ago this month will be the focus of a celebration Saturday, Feb. 21, at the Maine State Museum. The event, featuring an exhibit of the assortment of gifts, children’s art activities and a talk, will take place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Admission to the museum will be free that day.

Gifts from French families included personal possessions: dolls, family heirlooms, chinaware, even a handmade wedding gown given by a French woman to be worn by a Franco-American bride. Most of the gifts found their way to the Maine State Museum, 83 State House Station, where they on the display through March.

The Merci Cars, also known as the Forty & Eight (40/8) or Quarante Hommes/Huit Chevaux, arrived by ship in a New York port to much fanfare. The Maine Merci Car arrived Feb. 9, 1949, on top of a flatbed train car because rails in France were of a different gauge than those in the United States.

The name Forty & Eight refers to the fact that each of these boxcars, built between 1870 and 1900, could haul either forty men (hommes) or eight horses (cheveaux). After World War II, the Forty & Eight boxcars were used to transport American soldiers back across France (where they had fought to help liberate the country from the Nazis) to ships that would return them to America.

Earlier, during and after World War I, the boxcars hauled not only French soldiers and cavalry horses but also U.S. soldiers, called “Doughboys,” to and from the frontlines. A veterans organization established in 1920 and noted for its charitable and philanthropic work was named after the boxcars. La Societe des Quarante Homes et Huit Chevaux still exists today.

While many of the gifts from French families have been preserved, the Maine Merci Car did not fare as well. After years of relative indifference at various locations in Maine, title to the Merci Car was transferred to the Boothbay Railway Village. The museum, in honor of the 60th anniversary of its arrival in Maine, will restore the historic boxcar this spring in time for public viewing sometime this summer. Local and statewide civic and educational organizations have expressed interest in helping with this effort.

The Merci Car was adorned with 40 wooden crests, 20 on each side for the then 20 provinces of France. There were also two “wooden banners” with the words “Le Train de La Reconnaissance Francaise,” plus two wooden medallions designed especially for the Merci Train cars and two American Eagle crests. All but a few of these 44 handmade pieces have been lost over the years; they will be replicated and replaced by the museum.

To learn more about the work of the Boothbay Railway Village, log on to www.railwayvillage.org. To learn more about the Merci Cars, visit www.mercitrain.org.

“Merci Cars were wonderful symbols of citizen-based international friendship and good will,” says Maine State Museum Director Joseph R. Phillips. “We are fortunate to have the gifts from Maine’s Merci Car in the State Museum’s collection and will be exhibiting a sampling of them. We are also pleased to be co-sponsoring the special event on February 21st with the Boothbay Railway Village, which holds the Merci Car itself in its collection and is launching a project to restore it.”

Maine’s Merci Car was one of 49 sent by France to the United States in February 1949. French people filled each boxcar with gifts in thanks to Americans for the Friendship Train, an American grassroots effort that had carried food, fuel, and clothing to war-torn France and Italy in 1947.

The Merci Cars, officially called the French Gratitude Train (Le Train de la Reconnaissance Française) and loaded aboard the French freighter Magellan, arrived in New York Harbor with great fanfare. The 49 boxcars (each an old 40/8 boxcar used to haul military cargo in France during both world wars) were then sent to every U.S. state, with the District of Columbia and Hawaii sharing one.

After a brief stop in Biddeford, Maine’s Merci Car and its more than 1,000 gifts arrived in Portland where the gifts were displayed in City Hall and viewed by 13,000 Portlanders. On behalf of the state, Governor Frederick Payne officially accepted the boxcar a few days later at a State House ceremony in Augusta.

“The gifts from the people of France included wonderful, personal possessions such as dolls, a teddy bear, greeting cards, hand-painted plates, perfume, religious objects, toy cars, paintings, handkerchiefs, jewelry, and souvenirs of both World War I and World War II-related events on French soil” said Maine State Museum Curator of Historic Collections Kate McBrien. “Sixty years later, Maine is one of the few states that can still exhibit these gifts. In other places, the gifts were widely dispersed, or became lost over time.”

Maine’s Merci Car was transferred to the Boothbay Railway Village on Wiscasset Road in Boothbay where a restoration effort is now underway. According to Boothbay Railway Village Director Robert Ryan, “The restoration will also include re-creation of forty wooden crests, twenty on each side of the car, that represented the then twenty French provinces. We expect the restoration to be finished in time for visitors to see the completed car this summer.”

For more information on the Boothbay Railway Village see the website, www.railwayvillage.org; for more information on the Merci Cars, see the website,

www.mercitrain.org.


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