Many American soldiers who served in France during World Wars I and II will recognize and have “fond” memories of riding in cars like this French box car, called a 40 et 8 (40 and 8) car because the French military had rated the cars to carry 40 soldiers or 8 horses.
In November 1947, citizens of the United States embarked on upon a private relief effort to provide aid to war torn France and Italy. Nevadans donated two full box cars, some 126 tons, to the “American Friendship Train”. The citizens of France responded with the “French Gratitude Train” – the “Merci Train”, two years later. It consisted of 49 identical box cars, one for each state at the time, and one for the District of Columbia and the territories of Alaska and Hawaii. These cars were filled with artwork, antiques, books, and family heirlooms from across France. The French showing their gratitude to the United States for they relief train in 1947 (700 railroad cars), filled with food, medicine, clothing and other relief supplies.
Nevada’s car arrived in Reno from Sacramento on February 21, 1949. It was transferred from a Southern Pacific flat car to a Virginia & Truckee flat car in Sparks, and traveled onward to Carson City via the V&T on February 23. After touring the state, the gifts were moved to the Nevada State Museum.
The people of France appreciated America’s generosity so much that they felt they should reciprocate and give something back. But since it didn’t make sense to give back any of the supplies they had just received, they instead gave up their own personal belongings to send as gifts to America. They rounded up boxcars of their own, old “40 and 8” cars that were built in the 1880s. The cars went from town to town, stuffing them full of dolls, Antiques, books, toys and paintings were passed around, and sent on tours from town to town. jewelry, pottery, paintings, letters and other gifts. a number of wedding dresses were included in the collection, and some lucky brides got to walk down the aisle wearing a lovely French gown. In total over 52,000 gifts were collected from the citizens of France! The 49 boxcars, by then known as the “French Gratitude Train” or the “Merci Train”, were loaded onto a ship and sent back over the ocean in February of 1949. They arrived in New York harbor and were loaded onto flatcars to begin their journey all across the continent.
Most of the Merci cars were received with excitement in their respective state capitals, and the gifts proudly displayed. But soon the excitement wore off. The boxcars themselves couldn’t be used on American rails; they were the wrong gauge, and too old to be useful. The gifts quickly lost their novelty, and the ones that weren’t grabbed by museums were lost, never to be seen again. Slowly the Merci cars were forgotten.
Today many of the cars still exist, usually in the care of a historical society or museum. Some of them have been stuck in a secluded corner of a park somewhere, behind a fence and under a makeshift canopy. Some have had their gifts and decorative shields stolen, and been banished to a siding, left to fend for themselves in the elements. Decades of wind, rain and sun have taken their toll on the wood, which was old already when the cars were sent to America. Six of them are missing, presumed lost to fire or neglect. But many of them have been lovingly restored, including the car from Nevada.
Nevada’s Merci car first went to the State Museum. The gifts went on a tour of the state and were then added to the Museum’s collection, where they still are today. The Nevada car was transferred to the Railroad Museum after it opened in 1980. Finally a restoration effort was started, and in 2002 it was finished. The Merci car is now restored to the original condition it was in when it arrived in Carson City nearly 60 years ago, and it is on display inside the Railroad Museum’s annex.
The Nevada Merci’ car was recently moved and displayed at the Nevada Southern Railway Museum in Boulder City.