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Merci, guys: Rowan 40 & 8 returns beloved train back to its birthplace at N.C. Transportation Museum

SPENCER — It didn’t go exactly without a hitch, but the Rowan County 40 & 8 train is back where members of the local voiture think it should be — the N.C. Transportation Museum.

“It’s a great day for the 40 & 8,” said Steve Jarrett as he and other voiture members posed in front of the train after its delivery to the museum Wednesday afternoon.

The train — driven for decades by the 40 & 8 in local parades such as the Faith Fourth, Veterans Day, Holiday Caravan, and South Rowan and Cleveland Christmas processions — was built in 1939 by employees of Southern Railway’s Spencer Shops, today’s home for the state transportation museum.

Many Spencer Shops workers belonged to the 40 & 8, a longstanding veterans organization formed after World War I. They built the train’s locomotive around the body of a 2-ton Chevrolet truck.

The Spencer Shops’ car department then fashioned a replica 40 & 8 railcar, which the locomotive pulled. Those two pieces formed the Rowan County Voiture 40 & 8 “train” that became so familiar to parade-goers over the years.

Spencer Shops presented the distinctive train to the 40 & 8 as a gift. Besides all its local appearances, the train made its way to major cities such as Chicago, New York and Washington in its earliest days.

This same 40 & 8 train took part in an American Legion Parade down Fifth Avenue in New York with the late Fred Young singing “Carolina Moon” and “Carolina in the Morning” along the route.

Original plaques on the sides of the locomotive and railcar note the 1939 date of production, though they can barely be made out any longer.

“It’s neat to have it back here,” said Kelly Alexander, executive director of the N.C. Transportation Museum. “… It’s coming back where it started from.”

Alexander said the train will go through some restoration work on the museum site so that it’s spruced up and operating well again. The museum foundation hopes it will return to making regular appearances in parades, and it is counting on 40 & 8 members to volunteer as drivers.

The train also will be used at the museum for events and otherwise be on display.

Alexander, who doubles as chief operating officer of the museum foundation, likes knowing the site is receiving equipment that was actually made at Spencer Shops.

Even with all is railcars and locomotives, the museum doesn’t have as many things actually produced (not repaired) at the shops as you might think.

In a way, the local 40 & 8’s train has become historic in its own right, and it’s a nice tie-in to one of the museum’s important railcars in the Roundhouse.

But first, here’s a short explanation of what 40 & 8 stands for. During World War I, American soldiers often were transported to the battlefronts in French boxcars stenciled with “40/8,” which meant the cars could hold 40 men and eight horses or mules.

The national 40 & 8 Society website also notes: “This uncomfortable mode of transportation was familiar to all who fought in the trenches; a common small misery among American soldiers who thereafter found ’40/8′ a lighthearted symbol of the deeper service, sacrifice and unspoken horrors of war that bind all who have borne the battle.”

The 40 & 8 organization was founded in 1920 by veterans who had returned from France. It started out as an arm of the American Legion but has been independent of the Legion since 1959.

Membership includes veterans and active military personnel. The organization’s charitable endeavors over the years have focused on children’s welfare, nurses training, youth sports and leprosy research.

Local units are called voitures (the French world for “boxcars”), and official meetings of the 40 & 8 are referred to as promenades. The Rowan County Voiture No. 115 has a headquarters on High Rock Lake at the end of Long Ferry Road.

The Roundhouse at the N.C. Transportation Museum has on display the N.C. Merci railcar, the kind of 40/8 boxcar used in World War I to transport troops.

In 1949, the French people delivered to the United States 49 gift railcars, a “Merci Train,” or Gratitude Train, showing the country’s appreciation for the 1947 American Friendship Train of relief goods that had been sent to Europe.

There was a Merci railcar filled with gifts for each state and one for the District of Columbia and the then-territory of Hawaii. Most states had parades and ceremonies to welcome its Merci railcar.

North Carolina’s Merci boxcar — the French, four-wheeled wagon known as the 40 & 8 — came to find a home at the transportation museum.

Some of the gifts or Merci Train artifacts that were inside the boxcar are part of the collection at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.

The official Merci Train website offers this information: “In early 1949, there were at least thousands of World War I veterans and millions of World War II veterans still living who had memories of spending as much as a week being transported to or from the battlefronts of the wars in that exact same type of boxcar. There were no seats, no windows, no toilets, no sleeping or dining accommodations.”

Over the years, these now antique boxcars have been preserved and displayed by most states as memorials for those who died for the freedom of people throughout in the world.

Several of the local 40 & 8 members walked down to the Roundhouse on Wednesday to see the French railcar on display.

As for their train, the 40 & 8 guys faced challenges driving it to the museum Wednesday afternoon. It had been stored outside for more than a year at a Salisbury garage, and it took a while to get it started.

The brakes also weren’t too good, so Jarrett, who was driving, avoided the Main Street hills of Salisbury and took Long Street before turning past Henderson School and getting back on Main Street, He then made a beeline into Spencer on Salisbury Avenue.

Coming down that last hill before the museum’s entrance drive, Jarrett had to choke the old truck down, and it stalled soon after making the turn.

Several attempts at jumping the truck’s battery and getting it to start again failed. Finally, the 40 & 8 guys had to rely on a Caterpillar tractor tow up to the Master Mechanic’s Office.

“I used to love riding this thing,” Donna Blankinship said as everyone waited for the tow.

The 40 & 8 car had benches, and family members of the club would throw out candy to people lining the streets. Sometimes the train would carry beauty queens.

The train never was the easiest thing to operate. Guys like Jarrett, Joe Leazer, Jerry Overcash and Dr. Charlie Lockert were among the drivers, and the voiture hopes to train more drivers for the future.

Donnie Miller presides over the local 40 & 8 today. He said the train’s bell, which has a lot of silver, also was made at the Spencer Shops foundry.

Miller and other 40 & 8 members said it became too expensive for the local voiture to carry insurance on their beloved train. The club is donating the train to the museum’s foundation, not to the museum itself. Otherwise, only state employees would be allowed to drive it.

By donating it to the nonprofit foundation, volunteers can help in the restoration and future operation.

“It’s a win-win for us,” Jarrett said.

Yes, it was a great day for the 40 & 8.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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