In 1949, the French people sent out 49 WWI vintage boxcars to each state in the United States (there were 48 then and one was split for the District of Columbia and the Territory of Hawaii) filled with gifts thanking country for sending supplies to post-WWII Europe in 1947. The train, known by names like the “Gratitude Train” and the “Merci Train” arrived in New York and traveled across the country dropping off boxcars. Materials in the cars included everything from handmade cards from French school children to photographs of American troops liberating areas of France.
Watch a newsreel showing the Gratitude Train’s arrival in the U.S. in 1949.
40 & 8 Boxcars
The boxcars themselves were significant. They represented the type of boxcars used during WWI to transport American Troops. They could carry 40 men or 8 horses, hence the name 40 & 8. Returning Veterans from WWI started a society in 1920 called the La Societe des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux. The organization still exists today and many of the local groups, called “voitures” have been influential in preserving and caring for the 40 & 8 boxcars around the country.
You can visit Oregon’s boxcar today at Simpson Park in North Bend, Oregon where it is cared for by 40 & 8 Society – Voiture #316. It’s early history is a little murky.
We know the car arrived in Salem on Friday, February 18, 1949. It’s contents were displayed at the Portland Public Auditorium for a spell and then a box of materials was distributed to each of Oregon’s 36 counties. (Citation: Oregonian, Feb 15, 1949). A committee was formed to deal with receiving and storing Marion County gifts. For a time they were stored at Parrish Middle School. (Citation: Capital Journal, Feb 18, 1949).
Originally the car was set to be moved to outside of the American Legion Hall in Salem. There were even plans put in place to move the car from town to town in Oregon to the city that was going to host the convention each year. Weather and vandals took their toll on the car. In 1962, by request of Voiture 547, the car was moved to Astoria, and eventually to a location outside the Flavel House Museum. With the help of the Clatsop County Historical Society, a shed and fencing was erected to protect the car and restoration work was completed. The car was formally rededicated in 1989.
At some point in time the car appears to have been moved to Fort Stevens Historical Park in Hammond, Oregon. It was relocated yet again in 2006, to its current location in North Bend.
Willamette Heritage Center’s Collections
Materials from the Gratitude Train in the Willamette Heritage Center’s collections are from three separate Accessions – 1975.063, 1980.005, 2010.061. It includes 51 items, including 29 Objects, 2 Photos, 4 Scrapbooks and 16 Books. Click here for a full listing of materials: French Gratitude Train Collection.