Remembering the importance of France's 'Merci' gift to Utah 75 years later

People view the "Merci" train boxcar outside Ogden Union Station in Ogden on Thursday. The boxcar arrived in Utah from France 75 years ago this month.

People view the "Merci" train boxcar outside Ogden Union Station in Ogden on Thursday. The boxcar arrived in Utah from France 75 years ago this month. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)


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OGDEN — Utah leaders eagerly waited at Salt Lake City's Union Pacific depot on Feb. 18, 1949, not because of who was on the train, but what it was carrying.

The train, the Deseret News reported at the time, carried a unique gray boxcar packed with gifts sent to the Beehive State from the people of France, nearly four years after World War II wrapped up. A few days later, those gifts were dispersed across the state in a large celebration of peace and friendship.

It was France's way of saying thanks for the generosity Utahns — and other Americans — had shown it as it recovered from the devastating war.

The boxcar remains in Utah 75 years later, parked somewhat unassumingly on a rail segment outside of Ogden's Union Station. It's gone through some repairs, but it's clear it needs more as it shows its age.

Those changes are now on the horizon. The boxcar is slated to undergo major restoration repairs later this year before it returns to Utah next year. Ogden Mayor Ben Nadolski, speaking at a 75-year celebration of the boxcar, said the efforts will allow people to remember or even learn the special story behind it.

"We are not only excited to preserve the car for the next generation so we can continue to tell its story, but we're also honored to do that," he said. "This is our duty today to honor yesterday."

The 'Merci' train

Utah's boxcar is one of 49 France had shipped to the United States in 1949 — one for every U.S. state at the time and a shared car for Washington, D.C., and the territory of Hawaii, according to Mercitrain.org. Thousands of gifts were packed into each of the boxcars.

It was France's response to an American effort in 1947, called the Friendship Train, a train filled with food and supplies Americans sent France and other European countries still recovering after the war, after Washington columnist Drew Pearson suggested the idea.

The first train, Nadolski explained, included three boxcars of wheat and evaporated milk donated by Utahns. It made its only Utah stop in Ogden before the supplies went overseas.

Utah newspapers tracked the progress of the French train almost on an almost daily basis, digitalized archives show. That's because the train was a fairly big deal at the time; more than 200,000 people gathered in New York City when the boxcars arrived via ship on Feb. 2, 1949.

"Ship whistles blared, planes roared overhead and fireboats spread a sheen of white water skyward as the steamship Megaellan bearing the Frech 'Thank You' train passed the Statue of Liberty," stated a wire story the Salt Lake Telegram printed that day.

H.M. McNeil, chairman of a committee to welcome the "Merci" boxcar, reads an inscription on the boxcar after it arrived in Salt Lake City on Feb. 18, 1949.
H.M. McNeil, chairman of a committee to welcome the "Merci" boxcar, reads an inscription on the boxcar after it arrived in Salt Lake City on Feb. 18, 1949. (Photo: Deseret News Archives)

Utah's boxcar finally arrived in the Beehive State a little more than two weeks later, delayed three days because of snowy conditions across the train's route.

Utah National Guardsman and other organizations unloaded the boxcar when it arrived on Feb. 18, per news reports at the time. The plan was to hold a major celebration and divvy the gifts up to Utah's different cities.

Thursday marked the 75th anniversary of Utah's major celebration, where the boxcar was paraded through downtown Salt Lake City. Utah Gov. J. Bracken Lee told attendees he believed both trains symbolized the "goodwill" between the people of both countries, according to the Salt Lake Telegram.

"It is as a representative of the people of Utah that I take great pleasure in accepting this gift," he said.

Preserving the 'Merci' train's history

There aren't many records of what the train carried and most of the gifts have been lost in time.

However, Utah leaders did keep some of the items in 1949 and that's about the extent of what was known to be in the boxcar at the time, said Alan Barnett, local government archivist for the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service.

The division put some of these items, including French medals, books and cloth stars likely stitched by children with the names of various French and American cities, on display for Thursday's ceremony.

Barnett views these as a reminder of the kindness between the people of two countries trying to help each other after a dark period in world history.

Alan Barnett, local government archivist for the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, presents some of the gifts that the people of France sent Utah in 1949 through the 'Merci' train during an event honoring the 75th anniversary of its arrival at Ogden Union Station Thursday night.
Alan Barnett, local government archivist for the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, presents some of the gifts that the people of France sent Utah in 1949 through the 'Merci' train during an event honoring the 75th anniversary of its arrival at Ogden Union Station Thursday night. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

"This would never happen today. These people in France donated items as a gift to the United States in gratitude of what the people of the United States had done," he said. "How often do you see that? It's a piece of history that reminds you of that relationship."

The boxcar itself, originally assembled in Lyon, France, nearly 150 years ago, stayed at Memory Grove in Salt Lake City for a long time, where it had deteriorated with time.

Byron Lewis, a member of the American Legion Baker-Merrill Post 9, led the efforts to restore it and bring it to a new home in Ogden, closer to the Utah State Railroad Museum. Despite work to replace about 60% of its original wood, it's still in need of preservation.


What a treasure the people of France have given us to remember our history.

–Utah resident Judy Lewis


That work will begin later this year. The boxcar will be moved out of its current location and sent to Vintage Rail Restorations in Cheyenne, Wyoming, sometime this spring. There, it will be repainted and repaired to look exactly like it did in 1949, said Hope Eggett, curator for the Ogden Museums at Union Station.

She told KSL.com the process will take about a year to complete, but the boxcar will be moved to an enclosure south of the museum and out of the elements, so it doesn't deteriorate so quickly in the future.

Members of the Ogden City Council directed $100,000 toward the project, while the Ogden Union Station Foundation is about halfway to its goal of raising $75,000 toward the efforts. The organization is still collecting donations at its location in the museum.

Lewis died in 2022, but his widow, Judy Lewis, came to Thursday's ceremony to celebrate the boxcar's legacy and the new efforts to continue his work. She's hopeful the boxcar will continue to inspire people for generations to come once it returns to Utah.

"I hope a light switch has been turned on to the importance of the 'Merci' boxcar," she said. "What a treasure the people of France have given us to remember our history."

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Carter Williams is a reporter who covers general news, local government, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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