In February of 1949, a merchant ship entered New York’s harbor containing forty-nine boxcars filled with gifts of thanks from the French people to the citizens of the United States. 

These cars were filled with personal gifts donated by ordinary French citizens, to show gratitude to Americans for the generosity extended to France during two World Wars and for providing food assistance following World War II.  Together, the group of box cars were known as the Gratitude Train, but later earned the name “Merci Cars.” 

A film documentary is in production to tell the story of the French Merci railroad cars, which includes the one on exhibit at the Boothbay Railway Village in Boothbay Harbor.

A box car was designated for each of the 48 states as well as one for the District of Colombia to share with the territory of Hawaii.  Wayne Sheridan of Boothbay is the Director of Development and Community Relations at the railroad museum.  He and Railway Village board member Ron Ginger are leading fund raising and restoration work for the Merci Car. 

Maine’s Merci Car restoration work is included in a film documentary currently under production by Beth Spiegel, a Los Angeles independent film maker and an editor for National Geographic.  Spiegel went to Boothbay last spring to cover the museum’s restoration of the Merci Car. Her documentary titled “A World of Thanks” will be ready by January 2012.

Spiegel first learned about the Merci Cars while filming another job in Idaho.  She visited the Idaho transportation museum where she saw the box car in an exhibit.

“Something about the Merci Cars struck my heart,” she says.  “They are a historic connection to a time when people were struggling after the World War II Nazi occupation of France. These people still found the time to show gratitude to Americans,” she says.  The reciprocal humanitarian efforts following World War II are almost unknown to Americans today, she says.

“Why don’t more people know about this history,” she asked?

Prior to 2007, aided by connections made over the Internet, an informal national network of train enthusiasts began looking for ways to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Merci Train’s arrival in New York Harbor.  Enthusiasts like Earl Bennett of Tampa FL have been catalysts for the Merci Care restoration around the nation, says Sheridan Bennett visits the sites in the states where each of the cars are located.  

Bennett self published a book, “The Merci Train: A Big Thank You From France” about his journeys to visit each car.  On his website www.mercitrain.org, Bennett lists where each car is located in every state.

Maine’s boxcar was given to the Railroad Museum for protection and eventual restoration by the Maine State Museum, after being found stored in Lisbon, say Sheridan. Most of the original box car contents are housed in the Maine State Museum.

Spiegel’s film builds on the grass roots momentum for the Merci Car restoration. “This is a little known story and I want to bring it to the attention of more people,” says Spiegel. Spiegel archives the stories she collects for her documentary on her blog, posted at www.aworldofthanks.net.  “I’m fascinated by how the struggling people of France took time to make the effort to send thank you gifts to a World War II allied country, but they never knew who received their offerings,” she says.

Sheridan says a low key fund raising effort is keeping Maine’s Merci Car restoration going.  Funds are needed to build a protective and interpretative pavilion to house the railroad car. More information is available at www.railwayvillage.org.  Hit the “Opportunities” icon on the website for information on donations.