Boise Relics, Curiosities, and Collections

Idaho Merci Boxcar - The Old Pen's French Connection

No one liked Fat George

These days, many references to France in American culture are based on the imagery of the the white-flag waving Froggie from WWII. For those of you without a keen interest in history, let's just say that the French government provided a lackluster resistance to Hitler back in the 1940s, surrendering and setting up a puppet government that answered to the bad guys. Based on this fact, they deserve a little ribbing now and again because Uncle Sam had to come over and bail them out. But let's keep something else in mind. If it weren't for the French assisting us (both directly and indirectly) during the revolutionary war against Fat George and his stiff upper lip, the US as we know it might not even exist. We might be like Canada or Australia, independent but still hanging onto the vestiges of the monarchy like a bunch of pansies. Yikes, that's scary. Moreover, we must also realize that after WWII the French seemed to actually appreciate the sacrifice we as a nation had made on their behalf, and the best example of this is the Merci Train that France shipped to the United States in 1949.

The story of the Merci Train starts with another train, one that originated in the United States. At the end of WWII, with most of France in ruins thanks to the sauerkraut-loving Germans and their nasty little friends, a Washington D.C. journalist named Drew Pearson suggested in his daily newspaper column The Merry-Go-Round that we needed to help our friends in France and Italy and make it clear to them that all the aid they had been receiving was from America, despite what the vodka-swilling Ruskies were telling them. Other newspapers soon took up the cause, and the result was the 1947 Friendship Train that started in Los Angeles and traveled across the US collecting 700 cars' worth of food, fuel, and clothing for our European allies. The boxcars were then shipped by boat from New York to France, arriving on December 18, 1947, just in time for all the little Pierres and Jean-Claudes to have a nice post-apocalyptic Noël.

A carload of raisins bound for France

Instead of gobbling up the $40 million dollars worth of aid and greedily asking for more (see Iraq and/or Afghanistan), the French took it upon themselves to show their gratitude. They put together a Merci Train (Thank-You Train) consisting of 49 boxcars, each filled with personal gifts from individuals all across France. Most of the gifts were accompanied by hand-written letters of gratitude. Each state received one of these box cars, which were nicely painted and adorned with a painted ribbon and 40 coat-of-arms representing each of the regions of France. The gifts inside ran the gamut from simple to extravagant. Examples include pottery, woodwork, costumed dolls, paintings, handwritten letters from school children, war medals from dead husbands, brothers, and sons, and even a sculpted bust of FDR and a 200-year-old bronze church bell. A notable item in the Idaho boxcar was a replica of the famous statue Winged Victory of Samothrace, which you can see at the Idaho State Capitol. Idaho's gifts also included a wooden stool made by a blind man, with a personal note in French on the underside which translates (more or less) as:

Offered and executed by an 83-year-old blind man in recognition of having been delivered from slavery and hunger.

A handmade gift from Beaudart Donat, a blind Frenchman

The State of Idaho gave some of the Merci Boxcar gifts to private citizens, keeping only a portion for historical purposes. According to the Idaho State Historical Society, when an inventory of the State's artifacts was taken in 1983, it was realized that "The majority of its [the boxcars's] contents...remained scattered and unaccounted for." That seems kind of sad, because I'm sure those folks with friends in high places got the good stuff, and we'll never even know what it was.

After the Merci Train arrived in New York via the French freighter Magellan in 1949, the individual boxcars were sent on railroad flat cars to their destination states. Some of the states immediately put their boxcar on display in the capital, while others rolled the cars around the state so everyone could see it. New York's mayor William O'Dwyer, taking time out from participating in the usual New York police payoff scandal, called the Merci Train "The most heart-warming event in recent international history." How sweet. Not long after that, in February 1949, Idaho's boxcar arrived in Boise.

Idaho's merci boxcar in front of the Capitol building

What is perhaps most interesting about the boxcars was their symbolic and historic importance, even in 1949. Each boxcar, known as a "40-and-8" because it was designed to carry 40 men or 8 horses, was built between 1872 and 1885. They were used extensively during World War I and World War II to move Allied soldiers, including many Americans, all over France. For American veterans who had spent many hours in the cramped dark interior of a 40-and-8, the sight of one of these French boxcars in their home state was undoubtedly a very bittersweet affair.

Idaho's merci boxcar today

Most of the state boxcars from the Merci Train still exist today. There are a couple informative websites dedicated to preserving their history and cataloging their locations. According to the Idaho State Historical Society, Idaho's boxcar spent time on display at the Capitol building, after which it was put in storage at Gowen Field. Years later it was moved to a small park that is now the site of the BSU Student Union building. After that it was moved to the Idaho Transportation Museum, which is in the old shirt factory building at the Old Idaho Penitentiary. The boxcar has been restored to its original appearance, with bright colors and a full set of coat-of-arms. A ramp has been added to allow you to go inside the car and view exhibits containing a few of the original items that arrived in it. The boxcar is without a doubt the highlight of the obscure Transportation Museum, and it is a very interesting surprise for an Old Pen visitor with an appreciation for the nearly forgotten pieces of American history.

French coat-of-arms

Although a lot of the gifts inside the boxcar have been lost, whoever saw fit to preserve the Idaho Merci Boxcar itself should be commended, because it allows an otherwise obscure artifact of the Franco-American relationship and an antique piece of railroad history in its own right to be seen and touched. The boxcar could've easily met a tragic ending, just like the boxcars given to the states of Illinois, Colorado, Nebraska, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey, which are all presumed to have been scrapped or burned in the 50s or 60s. Nice going, guys.

Thankfully our boxcar is in excellent shape, protected by prison walls, waiting to tell you a little bit about the past if you're willing to listen. It just might make you want to cut the Frenchies some slack.

Relic, Curiosity, or Collection: Idaho's Boxcar from the Merci Train
Where: In the Idaho Transportation Museum at the Old Idaho Penitentiary

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Hours: Whenever the Old Pen is open
Cost: Included with admission price to the Old Pen
Fun fact: Some folks insist that legless frog ghosts inhabit Idaho's Merci Train boxcar.