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Historic boxcar at Union Station, restored once, needing TLC again

By Deborah Wilber - | Jan 5, 2023
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Utah's Merci Train boxcar is pictured Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, on the north end of the Union Station grounds. Condition of the boxcar, one of 49 given to American states by the French for support during World War II, has significantly deteriorated since it was moved from Salt Lake City in 2002.
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Judy Lewis, wife of U.S. Marine Corps veteran Byron Lewis, is pictured at the American Legion Post 9 in Ogden on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022. Byron Lewis was a member of the Forty and Eight Boxcar Committee that was responsible for bringing the Merci Train boxcar to Ogden from Salt Lake City and restoring it.
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An undated photo of the Mercy Train boxcar after a full restoration of it by the Forty and Eight Boxcar Committee, which brought it to Ogden from Salt Lake City after the gift of gratitude from the French sat in disrepair for roughly 30 years. It is now in need of restoration again.
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A plaque, once telling the history of the Merci Train boxcar is pictured on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, with sun damage having erased the story.

OGDEN — Sitting stationary on the Union Station campus, exposed to the elements, is a piece of World War II history that has fallen into disrepair.

On Feb. 22, 1949, Utah received a boxcar from the Merci Train, one of 49 filled with tens of thousands of gifts from each province of France and bestowed upon the U.S., going mostly to state capitals, as a way to say thank you — or “merci” in French — for food and clothes provided to the country’s citizens during the war.

Utah’s boxcar went to Salt Lake City, where it sat untouched at Memory Grove Park until the late Byron Lewis and others with the Forty and Eight Boxcar Committee worked to bring it to Ogden in 2002, after which it was restored and displayed on the north-end grounds at Union Station.

But now, “Byron would turn over in his grave” due to the state of the boxcar, deteriorating once again, Judy Lewis said of her husband, who died six months ago.

A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Byron Lewis was upset by the condition of Utah’s Merci boxcar at the end of its time at its prior location near the state Capitol. Covered in fading paint and surrounded by weeds just as tall as the train car itself, it took three years to prepare it for its debut in Ogden, he said in an interview with C-SPAN in 2014.

Restoration of the boxcar was important, he said at the time, because most of those who rode in them have passed on.

The Forty and Eight group — named after the style of boxcars built between 1885 and 1901 that, aptly, could hold 40 men or eight horses and were used during the first and second World Wars — was instrumental in the task of restoring the boxcar to its former glory.

Damen Burnham, the former manager of Union Station who now serves as Ogden’s redevelopment manager, said that while the city is thankful to the committee for the work it did, officials previously determined — after taking over management of the site and its collected artifacts from the Union Station Foundation — that best practices in caring for the boxcar did not include assistance from volunteers, based on a recommendation from another onetime museum manager, Holly Andrew.

“I don’t understand how you can fire a volunteer,” Judy Lewis said.

According to Burnham, maintenance performed on the boxcar by the Forty and Eight group was causing harm to the artifact in terms of certain techniques and materials being used.

Judy Lewis along with members of the Forty and Eight and American Legion Post 9 are upset that the city has denied access to continue to care for the boxcar given its deteriorating condition and no recent action to fix it.

Burnham said all decisions concerning the boxcar are made with the best intentions of preserving and doing what is best for it.

Ogden City Arts, Culture and Events operations converged with Union Station management last August. Division Manager Christy McBride said she has since begun taking necessary steps to restore the boxcar.

According to McBride, price quotes from historical railroad restoration experts have been received, ranging from $100,000 to $200,000. She said total costs include a covering for the boxcar and a heavy bronze plaque telling the Merci boxcar’s history.

A Weber County R.A.M.P grant also is being pursued to pay for restoration efforts.

“The boxcar is important to Utahns and our history,” McBride said. “We want to continue sharing the story of the Merci Train and the legacy of our local veterans for future generations.”

According to Byron Lewis, France was the only country to thank America with such a gift for the more than 700 American boxcars filled with relief goods sent to numerous countries during the war.


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