The cane used by the Marquis de La Fayette, 49 Sèvres porcelain vases, a silk wedding dress, and toy soldiers belonging to a ten-year-old boy. These were just a few of the objects gifted to the United States in a convoy of transatlantic solidarity organized after World War II: the French Gratitude Train.
Seventy years ago on February 3, 1949, some 200,000 New Yorkers gathered along Broadway. Three boxcars filled with French goods travelled up the avenue, painted with the insignia of the 40 French regions and a tricolor strip featuring the words “Train de la Reconnaissance Française, French Gratitude Train.” The city’s deputy mayor attended the ceremony alongside major William O’Dwyer and French ambassador Henri Bonnet, and remembers that “the crowd was even bigger than for Lindbergh’s memorable return after his flight across the Atlantic.”
The project was launched in 1947. In an effort to help the with the reconstruction of Europe, the United States sent 700 boxcars filled with food, clothing, medicine, and fuel. Six million tons of goods were distributed across France by the so-called “Friendship Train.” The symbol inspired a French railway worker and former soldier to found a national committee to organize a similar train.
The French Gratitude Train was formed of 49 boxcars — one for each U.S. state at the time, plus one for the federal capital. All French citizens were encouraged to contribute “typically French” objects, which included “glassware, crystal items, porcelain, art objects, French provincial headwear and costumes, stained glass, bells, and articles from Paris.” In the name of French-American friendship, prime minister Robert Schumann implored his fellow citizens to “give away objects, memories, or mementos.”
Twelve Dresses and Forty-Nine Dolls
More than 52,000 objects were collected from some six million French people. President Vincent Auriol donated 49 Sèvres porcelain vases and the city of Lyon gave 12 silk dresses. A descendent of the Marquis de La Fayette contributed his ancestor’s walking cane, while Parisian dressmakers offered 49 plaster dolls representing the development of “French elegance” from 1706 through 1906. These figurines are now exhibited in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
An oil painting by Breton painter Paul Sébillot entitled Spring in Brittany was added, and a small boy from Marseille parted with his toy soldiers. Other gifts sent to the United States included books, tableware, and lingerie, a Christofle cutlery set, a plaster replica of The Winged Victory of Samothrace, a coach belonging to Louis XV and a motorized tricycle, several medals of the Legion of Honor, a bugle recovered from the Battle of Verdun, and a fragment from a cannonball fired during the Battle of Valmy in 1792.
The cargo ship carrying the 49 boxcars of the French Gratitude Train enters New York harbor. © Keystone/Gamma/Getty Images
The gifts amassed weighed in at 250 tons. Following a ceremony held in Saint-Lazare station in Paris, the train set off for Le Havre where it was loaded onto the Magellan cargo ship. The words “MERCI AMERICA” were painted in white, seven feet letters on its hull. When the boat entered Manhattan Bay on February 2, 1949, it was greeted by U.S. Air Force jet planes flying overhead.
A National Event
A special law was passed by Congress lifting taxes on the boxcars and their symbolic contents, and the French Merci Train was unloaded in the port of Weehawken, New Jersey. The magazine Life covered the event in a series of color photographs. Three boxcars were paraded along Broadway, while the others were transported by road or train to their final destinations.
The contents of the New York boxcar were exhibited for two weeks in a gallery on Park Avenue. “Matrons in mink” and “ditch-diggers in work clothes” scrambled to admire the latest French novels, a bicycle from 1869, and an embroidered portrait of Franklin Roosevelt, wrote the New York Times.
A boxcar from the “Merci Train” is paraded in the streets of Wilmington, Delaware. © Delaware Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs
The North Dakota boxcar reached the state capital of Bismarck on February 15, 1949 at 9 am. The university library received books, an institution for children with disabilities was given toys, and inmates at the penitentiary were treated to tobacco. The rest of the gifts — 536 objects — were catalogued and stocked in the archives of the State Museum. Along with Arizona, North Dakota is one of the rare states to have preserved its presents from the Gratitude Train.
The Francophile Train
Seventy years after arriving in the United States, the Merci Train continues to fascinate amateur historians, railway enthusiasts, and Francophiles. In her work Boxcar Diplomacy: Two Trains that Crossed an Ocean, set to be published on March 2, Jane Sweetland looks into the story of 16 objects sent to America, including a Limoges porcelain candy dish and a set of Renault toy cars.
The North Dakota boxcar is displayed outside the State capitol in Bismarck.
John Stevens, a retired airline pilot and train buff, has decided to track down the 49 boxcars. He has listed 43 on his website, MerciTrain.org, including the one for North Dakota exhibited in the state capitol building. The one for Hawaii has lost its side boards and the six remaining boxcars are nowhere to be found. “The one for Connecticut was destroyed in a fire, while those for Massachusetts, Nebraska, and New Jersey were sold for scrap metal. And we’re still looking for the one in Colorado!”