Evidence From A Transatlantic Friendship

A Thank-You Gift from France

In 1949 a small boxcar arrived in Salt Lake City, a gift from the people of France.  Just after the end of World War II a train had traveled across America, collecting donations for war-devastated Europe.  Several years later, as a token of appreciation for the American assistance, a collection of boxcars known as the “Merci Train” arrived from France, filled with gifts.  The 49 boxcars had been used in World War I and were known as “Forty and Eights” because they could be used to transport 40 men or 8 horses.  One boxcar was to be sent to each of the 48 states and the remaining car was to be divided between the District of Columbia and the Territory of Hawaii.

Union Station in Ogden.

When Utah’s boxcar arrived, Governor J. Bracken Lee formally accepted the gift on behalf of the people of Utah.  The varied contents, including dolls, folk costumes, embroidery work, wine, books, crystal, and artwork, were placed on display for the public to see.  Today, a small collection of gifts from the boxcar is held by the Utah State Archives. 

Most of these items are currently on display at the Utah State Railroad Museum in the Ogden Union Station.  The items include a number of books relating the history, scenery, and culture of France.  The collection also includes medals, artwork, and a number of felt stars embroidered with the names of French and American cities.

What Happened to Utah’s Merci Train Boxcar?

After the Utah boxcar was emptied of its treasures, it ended up on display in Salt Lake City’s Memory Grove.  Over the years exposure to the elements took its toll.  In order to protect the car, it was repainted, but the original colorful detailing was covered over.  As part of the restoration of Memory Grove following the tornado that tore through the area in 1999, the Merci Train boxcar was removed from the park.  In 2006 volunteers completed a restoration of the boxcar and it was placed on the grounds of the Ogden Union Station, where it can be seen today.

The restored Merci Train boxcar.

The Mystery of the Remaining Merci Train Gifts.

The committee appointed by Governor Lee to oversee the contents of the Merci boxcar decided that after the initial public display in Salt Lake, the gifts would be divided up and dispersed among the state’s 29 counties so that more people would be able to see them.  The final fate of these dispersed gifts is unknown.  The gifts sent to the counties were presumably displayed for a time, but have been lost since then.  Perhaps some ended up in the collections of local museums or were distributed to residents.  Furthermore, the records of the Merci Train Committee have been lost as well, so there is no known inventory of the contents of the boxcar or any documentation of how the items were dispersed.  The only Merci Train gifts known to survive in Utah are in a the collection held by the Utah State Archives, but the most significant and expensive of the gifts are not among them.  Undoubtedly, many of the finest gifts are still out there, perhaps unidentified or in private hands.

Do You Know Anything About the Lost Merci Train Gifts?

Have you ever seen anything in some scattered corner of the state that might have come from the Merci Train?  If you have, we would love to hear about it.

More Information

For more information about the Merci Train and the gifts that have survived, you can visit the exhibit at the Utah State Railroad Museum, peruse the inventory of items held by the Utah State Archives at http://archives.utah.gov/research/inventories/20732.html , and read an article about Utah’s Merci Train boxcar in Beehive History 23 at http://utah.ptfs.com/awweb/main.jsp?flag=browse&smd=1&awdid=1 .

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