Historical Perspective: Fresno may bid adieu to city’s landmark Merci Train Boxcar

Caretakers of a piece of Fresno history are hoping they will not bid adieu to the nearly 70-year fixture in the city, a memorial to those who served in the two World Wars and to a goodwill effort between France and the United States: the French Merci Train Boxcar.

A proposed move of the boxcar to the Palm Springs Air Museum is in the talking stages. Two bodies are set to discuss the move in the coming days: the Fresno Historic Preservation Commission at its meeting Monday (6 p.m. at City Hall) and the Grande Voiture du California (the lead organization of the Forty & Eight Society, which was given custody of the boxcar by Gov. Earl Warren in 1949) at its meeting Monday and Tuesday in Santa Maria.

The boxcar has earned a spot on Fresno’s Heritage Property list, meaning a move requires city approval. But its 70 years of exposure to the elements has brought concern from the Forty & Eighters, who apparently welcome a place in the climate-controlled Palm Springs museum.

“I think everyone involved wants to figure out the optimal way to preserve this resource,” says Laura Van Onna, Fresno’s historic preservation specialist.

Welcome to Fresno

For years Fresno’s boxcar sat next to the old Southern Pacific locomotive at Roeding Park in its original olive drab paint. Since 2004, it’s been at the American Legion Post 509 on First Street between Dakota and Shields avenues.

Crowds assemble on the morning of Feb. 20, 1949, for the arrival of the French Merci boxcar to Fresno at the Southern Pacific depot. Fresno Bee file

It is one of 49 narrow-gauge boxcars that were delivered to America in 1949. The rail cars held symbolic meaning for U.S. infantrymen who rode them to the front lines in France during both world wars. The cars are commonly referred to as 40 & 8s because of their cargo capacity, 40 men or eight horses.

The story of Fresno’s boxcar began with a nationwide humanitarian gesture toward France and Italy as those countries struggled in their post-World War II recovery. Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson, at the time one of the most influential voices in the nation, was so moved by the conditions in post-war Europe that he made a rallying call upon Americans asking for donations of food, clothing, medicine and other supplies. He launched a plan for a train to cross America collecting the donations.

Film star Eddie Cantor was master of ceremonies for the gala sendoff of the “Friendship Train” from Hollywood on Nov. 7, 1947. It arrived the next morning in Fresno, where a crowd estimated at 4 ,000 gathered at the Southern Pacific crossing at Kern Street after a parade through downtown with several marching bands. The Fresno State College band played the national anthems of France and Italy, Mayor Glenn M. DeVore declared “Friendship Train Day” and Pearson, Warren and representatives of France and Italy gave speeches.

Fresno filled the boxcar with 990 cases of raisins and 300 cases of dried figs and off it went. Other California stops came in Merced, Stockton, Oakland and Sacramento.

In a 1985 file photo, members of the American Legion Post 509 in Fresno make preparations for the rededication of the renovated Merci Boxcar in Roeding Park. Left to right are Joe Paulskas, H.O. Fleimister of Anaheim, Maurice Anderson and Chester Croswhite. Ed Nold Fresno Bee file

On Nov. 18, the Friendship Train that arrived in New York City had grown to 270 boxcars, pulled by multiple locomotives, loaded with donated goods worth $40 million. The supplies were shipped overseas just in time for Christmas.

As the aid poured in, the French Veterans Association organized a thank-you gesture. Forty-nine of the vintage 40 & 8 boxcars were collected and much like the trek of the “Friendship Train,” France’s “Merci Train” made its way through cities and provinces collecting gifts for the United States. On Feb. 2, 1949, the French freighter Magellan steamed into New York harbor laden with the boxcars filled with gifts including dolls, antiques, statues, clothes, ornamental objects, art and furniture – much of it hand-crafted. The “Merci Train” made its way across the nation, one boxcar for each state with the District of Columbia and the territory of Hawaii sharing the contents of one. (Alaska, also a territory, wasn’t included.)

On Feb. 20, 1949, hundreds of Fresnans watched as two of the boxcars rolled through Fresno on flatcars. One was destined for Sacramento, the other for Oregon. Through a committee set up by Gov. Warren’s office, the contents of the California boxcar were distributed, mainly to museums and schools. After lobbying by the Forty and Eight Society, the California boxcar ended up at Roeding Park as a war memorial.

California’s French Merci Train boxcar at Roeding Park in an undated photo during a ceremony of the 40 & 8 Society. Special to The Bee/40 & 8 Society

Years outside

After years of falling into disrepair from decades of exposure in the elements, it was moved in 2004 to the American Legion post where there was hope that it could eventually be moved under a cover.

It didn’t happen, and the boxcar’s deterioration continued. Recently, the local Voiture 31 and the American Legion post spent months doing restoration work: tongue and groove, sanding and new paint, including the ornamental coat-of-arms type plaques that represent provinces of France that adorn the sides.

“This is a memorial,” said Mildred Wright-Pearson, grande conductor of the Voiture 31. “It’s a historical site.”

One of the original gifts of gratitude from France, shipped over in the California Merci Boxcar, was this 5-foot-tall concrete monument in Courthouse Park. It was originally erected by the French along the La voie de la Liberté (The Path of Freedom), the route American forces took during World War II as they liberated France from the German army. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

“I’m very upset about this,” she said of the proposed move half the state away. “It’s one-of-a-kind in the state.” Of the original 49 boxcars of the Merci Train, 43 still exist. “We are very proud of this boxcar, and we’re trying to maintain it, keep it up to standards and make it a continuous symbol for our veterans of World War I and World War II,” Wright-Pearson said.

The granite monument that has accompanied the boxcar since its dedication on Nov. 11, 1949 in Fresno, will go with it to Palm Springs, according to the curator there, Frank Castner.

One thing that won’t leave Fresno is one of the original gifts of gratitude from France that was shipped over the Atlantic in the California boxcar: a 5-foot-tall concrete monument in Courthouse Park.

,It was originally erected by the French along the “La Voie de la Liberté” (The Path of Freedom), the route American forces took during World War II as they liberated France from the German army, and specifically commemorates the freeing of the city of Cannes on the French Riviera by Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army. A major design element emblazoned on the monument’s face is a large torch and flame, modeled after another gift from France, the Statue of Liberty, with its symbolic torch lighting the way to freedom.