MERCI TRAIN, 1949
When I received the list of French sculpture from Fleming Museum of Art, Burlington, VT, the provenance of the anonymous Panther caught my attention: "Train de la Reconnaissance". This was very unusual and did not make sense to me. I soon found out about the Merci Train.
From mercitrain.org, text by Earl Bennet Sr.:
"The Merci Train was a train of 49 French railroad box cars filled with tens of thousands of gifts of gratitude from at least that many individual French citizens. They were showing their appreciation for the more than 700 American box cars of relief goods sent to them by (primarily) individual Americans in 1948.
The Merci Train arrived in New York harbor on February 3rd, 1949 and each of the 48 American states at that time received one of the gift laden box cars. The 49th box car was shared by Washington D.C. and the Territory of Hawaii.
Parades and ceremonies of welcome were conducted in the state capitols and major cities of almost all the states. The largest and most attended was in New York City where more than 200,000 people turned out to welcome that state's assigned box car.
The symbol of the Merci Train, shown next to the French flag, is a frontal view of a steam engine with flowers on the pilot which are symbolic of Flanders Field, where many American "Doughboys" from WW1 are buried. The drawing was adopted as the official symbol of the French Merci Train Committee, and a plaque of the drawing was placed on each of the Merci box cars. The committee also had gift tags made bearing the symbol, and one accompanied each of the more than 52,000 gifts that came in the box cars.
In early 1949 there were at least thousands of World War 1 veterans and millions of WW2 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, and no sleeping or dining accommodations. Each man and his 39 traveling companions had barely enough space to sit down and they had to fit their bodies in rows to have enough room to lie down for sleep. Most of the veterans that survived the war had memories (and some still have) of those final rides and conversations with buddies, including some who were killed and never made it back to the U.S.A. Those surviving veterans decided to make the little gift boxcars memorials to the lost buddies and the sacrifices that they made to save the world from the tyranny of Nazism. Thus it is that, for more than 60 years, they have volunteered to keep the little antique boxcars repaired and honorably displayed in an effort to memorialize all that those who had given their all for the freedom of people everywhere in the world. I think that all of those heroes should continue to be honored by the continued preservation of these humble symbols of their sacrifices.
A description of all of the gifts that were in the box cars would fill many books, and the stories of the origins of those gifts would fill many more. To view an exceptionally well presented pictorial sample of the gifts that each of the 49 little French boxcars carried when they arrived in the USA, visit the online exhibit at the web site of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Upon arriving there, click on the words "Launch Interactive Exhibit", then follow directions to photos of the gifts (Objects). The box cars themselves were antiques by 1949, having been built between the years of 1872 and 1885, which means that those still surviving today (2010) are more than 100 years old.
This site has a photo of each of the remaining box cars and pictures of some of the more than 52,000 gifts that the train originally delivered to America. To view photos of any of the surviving boxcars, visit the "Merci Boxcars by State" link at the top of the page, then click on the links to the individual states. In addition to the photographs of the cars, the viewer will also find significant facts about each state's boxcar, photos of the gifts (if any are known), and the location, address and local contact information.
The Merci Train played an important, but little known (today), role in the historical friendship that has existed between our two nations since before America gained its independence. In fact the French people fought with us to achieve that status, and also gave us another gift which has become an important symbol of America's freedom around the world, The Statue of Liberty. It is the author's hope that his work about The Merci Train will revive interest in the story and remind people on both sides of The Atlantic that international friendship is an important commodity, and well worth the effort it requires to preserve it."
Ironically enough, the boxcars were manufactured in the US. In one order only, the French National Railroad (SNCF) had bought 5,000 boxcars to the Middletown Car Company, in Pennsylvania.
This is how I learned about the provenance of the Panther at the Fleming Museum of Art. I could also locate the Vermont wagon at the Vermont Veteran's Military Museum and Library, Camp Johnson National Guard Camp, in Colchester, Vermont.
As a proud recent Texan, I checked upon the Texas wagon. It is located inside the Texas Military Forces Museum, Camp Mabry, Austin, Texas and the list of its content can be seen at mercitrain.org/texas.
One of the many objects it contained is a work of art eligible to be included in the French Sculpture Census. It is a medal of the King Dagobert 1st, part of a 74-medals series representing the Kings of France. The series was commissioned by Marie-Thérèse de France (1778-1851), daughter of Louis XVI, sole survivor of the royal family (stricto sensu) after the French Revolution. The engraver Armand-Auguste Caqué (1793-1881) exhibited the medals at the Salon between 1836 and 1839.
My task now is to examine the content of each of the 48 other wagons.... The first finds are promising: a bust of Lafayette after Houdon at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus and a plaster cast of Carpeaux's Ugolino at the University of Indiana in Bloomington!
Laure de Margerie
January 3, 2014
updated December 22, 2014
1. France 20th century, Panther, Burlington, The Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont, 1949.20.18 (ph. © The Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont, Burlington)
2. "In Paris two Frenchwomen lug a painting into the hall where gifts were collected", LIFE Magazine, February 28, 1949 (ph. mercitrain.org)
3. The Magellan on board of which the Merci Train was brought to New York (ph. history.nd.gov)
4. "French Ambassador Bonnet (right) welcomes train in New York", LIFE Magazine, February 28, 1949 (ph. mercitrain.org)
5. Ohio wagon heading to its final destination, Port Clinton (ph. Ohio Historical Society)
6. Label under Panther, Burlington, The Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont (ph. © The Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont, Burlington)
7. Louisiana's wagon, Old State Capitol Museum, in Baton Rouge (photo's origin: Herald Dick Magazine
8. A plaster cast of Carpeaux's Ugolino from the Indiana wagon of the Merci Train, Bloomington, Indiana University, Indiana Memorial Union (ph. thestranger.com)