Forty and Eight Boxcar
The "Forty and Eight" draws its origin from World War I, when the United States had young
Americans in France to fight "The War To End All Wars."
About the first thing they ran into was a droll bit of French
humor known as a Voiture boxcar. The narrow gauge railroads of
France had box cars that carried little more than half the
capacity of American boxcars and these were used to transport the
soldiers to and from the fighting fronts. Each boxcar carried
carried 40 men or 8 horses (40 hommes et 8 chevaux). The cars were stubby, only 20.5 feet long and 8.5 feet wide.
Although memories of riding in them were not always pleasant, the cars nonetheless gave their name to a fraternity formed within the American Legion
La Société des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux in 1920.These infamous boxcars
were also used during WW II to transport troops to and from the front. In 1945, many American
troops (including POWs) were transported from Germany to France for return to the States in a rough-riding 40 and 8,
especially in November and December. Veterans' memories of travel in the rickety, unheated cars
are pretty vivid; some men even resorted to building fires inside them
to keep warm on the long, slow trips.
For years after the end of World War II, much of Europe remained in ruins. In 1947, an American newspaper columnist named Drew Pearson began asking for donations of food and clothing that could be sent to help the people of France and Italy. Public response was overwhelming and $40 million in food and supplies were collected and shipped to Europe aboard the 700-car American Friendship Train.
A French veteran of WW I and rail worker named André Picard suggested that France respond by sending a single boxcar full of gifts to America as a way of saying thank you. Tens of thousands of French citizens donated objects to be sent to the United States and it was decided, after the French War Veterans Association got involved, that since the outpouring of goods was so great, that one boxcar would be sent to each state with one being shared between the District of Columbia and the Territory of Hawaii. All of the items were to be loaded in "Forty and Eight"-type boxcars, named after the sign painted on them which stated that 40 men or 8 horses could be loaded inside (see above photo). Each car was to be adorned with the coats of arms of all of the provinces of France.
In all, 52,000 gifts were collected, ranging from worn wooden shoes to a jeweled Legion of Honor medal that belonged to Napoleon. The collection also included a Louis XV carriage, children's drawings, and tree seedlings. They were gathered throughout 1948 and crammed into the railroad cars. The 50-car train (at that time, there were only 49 states in the Union, plus one car to be shared between Washington, D.C and Hawaii, which was not yet a state) was shipped to America from the port of LeHavre aboard an ore carrier, the Magellan, which sailed into New York Harbor on February 3, 1949 amidst a fleet of small boats with Air Force planes flying overhead while thousands of New Yorkers watched from the shore. A huge sign on the side of the Magellan read simply "Thank You, America."
Congress had passed a resolution allowing the gifts to enter the country duty-free, and longshoremen volunteered their services to bring the cars ashore. Of too narrow a gauge for American rails, the cars were loaded onto flatcars in New Jersey for delivery, at no charge, by the nation's railroads to state capitals across the country. On reaching their destinations, the cars were greeted by dignitaries at special ceremonies. Their contents, after being displayed for a time, were distributed in a variety of ways. Many were sold at auction, with the proceeds going to charity, while some especially significant items went to public institutions.
Today, there are 39 cars from the "Merci" ("Gratitude") Train still on display nationwide, however, the train's mission is now largely forgotten, a curious relic of two incredible displays of goodwill which followed the horrors of World War II. Unfortunately, few of the gifts lovingly placed in the cars by the citizens of France can be traced today. But, those cars that have survived vandalism and the ravages of time testify to a great expression of friendship and caring between the peoples of France and the United States who fought side by side for a common goal half a century ago.
Information on the current status of Merci Train boxcars can be found at the Railway Preservation News web site. A list of preserved cars can be found here.