#Lookback: The “Friendship” and “Merci” Trains

    A series where we take a #lookback at the stories and history of our community, brought to you by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

    The aftermath of World War II left Europe war-torn and desolate. Under Nazi occupation, the Germans seized 20% of the French food production. Consumer good shortages were felt across the country and due to a lack of fuel, fertilizer, and workers, French farm production fell by another 50%. Following the war, France needed to rebuild itself. 

    American journalist from Washington, Drew Pearson, proposed that the United States send a train to France filled with food and other supplies to help their people. The “Friendship Train” was planned as a grassroots movement free from government control. As the train traveled across the county, it would stop in towns to collect donations of food and clothing. When the  Friendship Train left Los Angeles on November 7, 1947, Pearson only hoped to collect 80 train cars of food to send to France. and headed east. However, as word spread of the Freedom Train, more and more donations were given as the train traversed county by county, state by state. Soon, the train reached Wyoming where it would pass through Greenwater, Rawlins, Laramie, and Cheyenne. By the time the Freedom Train reached the east coast, it had collected over 700 cars of food, clothing, and fuel, including some monetary donations used to purchase additional supplies. The donations totaled up to an estimated $40 million in value.

    These supplies were quickly sent to France where they were met with gratitude by the French people. The generosity of the American people inspired a French rail worker and war veteran André Picard to reciprocate the gesture with gifts of their own. Picard proposed the idea to send a decorated boxcar decorated and loaded with gifts, wines, lace headdresses, and perfumes from France in a decorated Forty and Eight boxcar (French boxcars used during World War I and II, and by the Americans following the liberation of France, named Forty and Eight because they could fit either forty soldiers or eight horses.) A local veterans organization adopted the proposal and began reaching out to accept donations to fill the “Merci Train.” Like the Friendship Train, word spread of the Merci Train, and they quickly received more donations than they could accept. The French Government approved the project of the Merci Train and the national veteran’s organization took control of the program, receiving thousands of gifts. Eventually, the Merci Train grew from sending a singular car to sending 49 total cars filled with French goods: one to each of the 48 states and the 49th to be shared between D.C. and the territory of Hawaii.

    Though most families were struggling to survive, over 6 million French families donated items of value. Not only were small gifts of ashtrays and champagne put in the Merci train cars, but priceless relics as well. The original bust of Benjamin Franklin created by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon was donated, as were dozens of rare paintings, and the first motorcycle ever built. These 49 train cars were brought loaded onto the French ship Magellan, but the gifts kept pouring in by the hundred. Eventually, too many gifts were brought that several thousand had to be left on the docks in France, never to be brought over to America. 

    The Magellan arrived in American weeks later on February 2, 1949 with the words “Merci America” painted in large lettering along her side. 25,000 spectators watched the Magellan pull into port where the trains were distributed amongst the states. The Wyoming car was received two weeks later in front of the State Capitol building in Cheyenne. The contents were kept by the state museum, though some goods were spread across the various counties and given to local museums. The Wyoming car from the Merci train has been restored and can be found on display at the American Legion Post #6 in Cheyenne.

    General R. L. Esmay, the executive chairman of the state distributing committee for the Merci train aptly summed up the exchange of the Freedom and Merci train by saying “The French people gave more than we did. We gave from our abundance; they gave from their poverty.”

    Author: Kevin Scannell

    Next up for the Fremont County Museum

    May 11, 11am at the Riverton Museum, “Riverton Museum Rendezvous Experience” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    May 11, 10am at the Pioneer Museum, “Mount Hope Cemetery Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek

    May 16, 6pm at the Dubois Museum, “Tips for the Trail: Staying Safe as a Beginner Trekker” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    May 19, 9am at the Riverton Museum, “100th Anniversary Yellowstone Hwy Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek

    May 25, 11am at the Riverton Museum, “Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War: A Family Story” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    May 28, 7pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Lander’s Governor-Lester Hunt: Blackmail & Suicide-70 Years ago”

    Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.

    The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum need your financial support.  In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years.  Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

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