Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Pittsburghers, on the evening of Saturday, November 15, 1947, witnessed a ceremony at the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) Station that marked the beginning of an extraordinary occurrence: the journey of a Friendship Train across the Keystone State. By the time it reached Philadelphia, three days and seven stops later, the train hauled an additional fifty-one cavernous boxcars packed to capacity with food for the hungry in post-World War II France and Italy. The citizens of Pennsylvania, like Americans in all forty-eight states, Hawaii, and Washington, D.C., had voluntarily donated food with heart-warming generosity, a gesture that would not go without an extraordinary response from the grateful people of France.

Headlines of the November 13, 1947, edition of the Erie Dispatch blazed, “Erie Citizens Join Today in Fund-Raising for Friendship Train,” while Lancaster’s Intel­ligencer Journal proclaimed, “Here Comes the Friendship Train.” Fifteen business­men in Altoona, Blair County, sponsored a full-page advertisement in the Altoona Tribune, “The Friendship Train! Let’s All Do Our Part.” A Pittsburgh newspaper published a photograph of actress Eve Arden’s daughter Liza holding a replica of the train.

Americans enthusiastically contributed forty million dollars worth of food for the Friendship Train of 1947. They gave from their own grain fields, dairy farms, and kitchens. This gift – not the Marshall Plan, then being formulated – was a genuine grassroots effort, a gift from the hearts of a people who genuinely cared.

Drew Pearson (1897-1969), internationally known columnist, broadcaster, humanitarian, and a 1919 graduate of southeastern Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, conceived the idea of the Friend­ship Train in October 1947. A severe drought that year had compounded Europe’s post-war misery. Flour for all baking needs, including bread, a staple in the diet of Europeans, was restricted to six ounces per day. Twenty farmers from the Midwest traveled abroad at their own expense to assess the situation, which they described as dire. When Pearson, in his syndicated newspaper column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” wrote about the plight of Europeans, Americans – and Pennsylvanians – responded.

With astonishing rapidity, Pearson’s idea moved forward, under the sponsorship of the Citizens Food Committee. The first boxcars left Los Angeles on Friday, November 7 – just five weeks after the concept was first announced. By the time the Friendship Train pulled into New York eleven days later, on Tuesday, November 18, where transport ships waited in the harbor, it had accumulated an astonishing seven hundred boxcars and tankers, all laden with food, medicine, fuel, and clothing.

Small gestures of American generosity would touch the hearts of war-weary Europeans. A six-year-old Pennsylvania boy carefully wrapped two pennies in a paper with a note, “Please buy some cakes for a little boy or girl in Europe.” In the Cumberland County seat of Carlisle, ten­-year-old Ronald Ludwig spent his day off from school collecting food. After he filled his wagon and pulled it to a collection point, he went out again to gather more. A citizens committee in tiny Barnesboro, near Altoona, raised one thousand dollars in just two days. Elsewhere, a taxicab driver collected ten dollars from his passengers for the cause. At football stadiums and in movie theaters, patrons donated as the collection box was passed around.

Companies, large and small, also contributed. Johnstown businessman Isadore Klatzin, owner of the Penn Furniture Company, offered to match each dollar with one dime. Not one of the railroads charged for the use of their boxcars, rails, or workers. Pennsylvania Railroad employees alone contributed more than sixteen thousand dollars to the effort. Because foodstuffs sometimes arrived too late to be loaded on the train, California Eastern Airlines announced it would fly “Friendship” airplanes east to New York without charge. Goodyear Tire and Rub­ber Company supplied pliofilm for waterproofing the packages. Both the United States and the American Export lines shipped the perishables free of charge.

Five hundred people met the Friend­ship Train as it rolled into the East Liberty freight yard in Pittsburgh on a chilly and drizzling Saturday evening. The inclement weather deterred more from attending. The City Police and Firemen’s Band launched the entertainment, followed by appearances of local personalities, including Mayor David L. Lawrence (1889-1966) and J. S. Crutchfield, chair­man of the Pittsburgh Citizens Food Committee (see “David L. Lawrence, The Deft Hand Behind Pittsburgh’s – and Pennsylvania’s – Politics” by Richard Robbins, Fall 2001). The welcoming ceremonies were recorded by radio station WWSW for a later rebroadcast in Europe.

The Steel City added five cars filled with wheat and other staples, each of which bore a sign in French and Italian, “Pittsburgh – Food For Friends.” The Ital­ian Sons and Daughters, the Independent Order of the Sons of Italy, the Sons of Columbus, and manufacturer Salvatore Viviano donated nineteen hundred cases of provisions. M. Rom Sons, Inc., gave more than two hundred cases of vegetables and flour. The Western Pennsylvania Brewers Association and the United Steel Workers of America each donated a car­load of flour. Food collection bins were placed at eighteen hundred stores and collected by firemen.

The next morning, Sunday, November 16, the train was not scheduled to stop in the Cambria County community of John­stown, but Johnstowners demanded to be among the contributors – and celebrants. Congressman Harve Tibbott (1885-1969) of Ebensburg and the PRR arranged the stop. The Blue Devils Trumpet and Drum Corp of American Legion Post 294 and thousands of citizens greeted the train. Nicola Guilli, a representative of the Italian government, was among those who addressed the throng.

Business and private giving in the region was spirited. Pedestrians dropped spare change in a barrel in downtown Johnstown. School children in Cambria County, as well as civic groups, such as the Barnesboro Lions Club and the Wind­ber Fire Company, all donated thousands of dollars. Central City, then a community of about twenty-one hundred residents south of Windber, collected four thousand dollars for the purchase of food. Residents of Johnstown had purchased an entire boxcar of milk which, for reasons still unclear, had been added to the train in Chicago.

Even though the first snow of the season had fallen the previous day, thousands of enthusiastic Altoona citizens cheered, applauded, and waved wildly as the diesel-powered locomotive roared into the city’s PRR station at three o’clock that afternoon. Altoona had a connection with the campaign-native daughter Marion Canty, Pearson’s secretary, was aboard the train.

After two hours of celebration, the train departed for another unscheduled stop, Huntingdon. Although the train left Altoona at five o’clock, it did not pull into Huntingdon, just thirty-five miles to the east, until eight o’clock. Despite the cold, darkness, and snow-covered ground, the delay did not dampen the spirits of four thousand people gathered for the event. A large generator powered lighting for the area and Juniata College lent rope to help police keep people away from hazardous areas. The Lions Club of Huntingdon had organized the effort and its members, along with the Sea Scouts and the Air Scouts, had loaded a freight car full of flour and wheat, ready to add to the Friendship Train. Local radio station WHUN broadcast the program from a flatbed car. The train roared out of Hunt­ingdon after staying just half an hour, but it left area residents excited and proud of their gifts for Europe’s hungry.

The following morning, a brief – but highly publicized – ceremony was conducted in Harrisburg. Excitement was heightened by the presence of the Free­dom Train, an unrelated train sponsored by the federal government to tour the country with an exhibit of historical documents. More than seven thousand people toured the Freedom Train on Sunday, and the following day thousands gathered to witness the ceremony for the Friendship Train. The international press covered the occasion; both Time and Life magazines sent photographers; major motion picture companies shot footage; and the British Broadcasting Corporation taped the program for international airing.

The John Harris High School Band, Mayor Howard E. Milliken, Madame Henri Bonnet, wife of France’s ambas­sador to the United States, and Guilli, representing Italy, greeted the train. The local food train committee presented nine cars to Drew Pearson. Cash collected toward Harrisburg’s five boxcars (including one from Chambersburg) totaled nearly fourteen thousand dollars. Much of the success for the cash drive was credited to Abe and Dick Redmond of popular Har­risburg radio station WHP, who raised money by playing music requests for pledges. On one evening alone they raised twenty-two hundred dollars.

Four of the boxcars at Harrisburg were sent by York and Williamsport. York’s expansive campaign attracted unusually large contributions from industry, and city and county school students collected donations. Each package loaded into the boxcars carried a message in French and Italian, “To our friends in France and Italy from your friends in Pennsylvania.”

While York residents felt that their sendoff of donations “could not be expressed full with ceremonies of any kind,” Williamsport volunteers washed, polished, and shellacked the engine before dispatching their boxcars to Harris­burg after a rousing performance by the local high school band, remarks by dignitaries, and a radio broadcast. The contri­butions filling Williamsport’s cars came not only from surrounding Lycoming County, but also from Clinton County, primarily from Renovo and Lock Haven.

Like other American communities, dozens of scouting organizations, women’s auxiliaries, chambers of commerce, veteran’s posts, schools, church groups, and individuals throughout cen­tral Pennsylvania participated in the cam­paign. Businesses offered what they could. Manbeck’s Bakery in Lemoyne, Cumberland County, lent its trucks to col­lect food in nearby towns. A special mes­sage in three languages adorned each boxcar: “Food contributed in next-door fashion by the people of Harrisburg.” General Outdoor Advertising Company donated the manpower and materials to make the large signs, measuring twenty by four feet.

One half-hour after its arrival in the state capital, the Friendship Train­ – lengthened by nine cars – sped off for its penultimate stop, the City of Lancaster. Lancaster’s meticulously planned ceremony commenced that morning at eleven o’clock. In addition to the ubiquitous speeches, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, and Mennonite clergy blessed the Friend­ship Train.

Unlike many stops, Lancaster County did not set a goal. Instead, the mission was to fill as many freight cars as possible. The clergy exhorted their congregations to give generously and most churches accepted donations. Several schools, among them the Lancaster Country Day School and schools in Smoketown, each collected a ton of provisions. An empty, weatherproofed boxcar had been placed on a siding near Lancaster’s downtown farmers’ market. Local farmers delivered bushels of wheat directly to the car. The small community of New Holland donated twenty tons of wheat while Elizabeth­town sent two and a half tons. Flory Brothers Mill of Lancaster gave two-and­-a-half tons of flour, and the Mennonite Central Committee donated a full boxcar of flour. The Lancaster Mill Company gave eight hundred cartons for packing. Lancaster’s Wright Brothers Bakery lent its trucks for transporting the donations, and the Miller and Hartman Warehouse packed the food, which was valued at sixty-three thousand dollars.

The train departed to the music of the McCaskey High School Band. Two red roses, the city’s symbol, had been painted on each side of each boxcar, which also bore the flags of Italy, France, and the United States, in addition to an inscription, “Gifts from Lancaster County, Pa.: Garden Spot of America.” The train sped off to its final stop in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Thirty-five hundred spectators, key organizers, and Mayor Bernard Samuel, waited at Philadelphia’s Broad Street Sta­tion for the 4:00 P.M. arrival of the Friend­ship Train. In addition, Gimbel Brothers Department Store placed an advertisement in the November 16 issue of the Philadelphia Bulletin, encouraging readers to “Attend the ‘send-off’ ceremonies for the Friendship Train. It’s an event in Philadelphia’s history.” The John Bartram High School Band provided music and its color guard carried fifty-one flags, each honoring a school alumnus who had died in the war.

Southeastern Pennsylvania also collected supplies with fervor. In Perkasie, Bucks County, a small community twen­ty-five miles north of Philadelphia, the Mothers of the Second World War amassed in only two days: twenty-seven hundred pounds of flour, seven hundred pounds of sugar, forty-one cases of milk, and thirty-one cases of assorted food­stuffs. The greater Philadelphia area contributed seventeen cars, one of which was sent by Atlantic City, New Jersey. The train stopped once more, in Trenton, New Jersey, before it reached its final destination at New York the following day.

There was actually a separate Friendship Train on a north­ern route for the same cause. The northern edition arrived in Erie’s Union Station from Ashtabula, Ohio, at five o’clock on the afternoon of Sun­day, November 16. The ceremony featured automobile manufacturer Henry Kaiser as the principal speaker. Kaiser represented Pearson who, at the request of Governor James H. Duff, traveled the southern route. Kaiser proclaimed the procession “a train of faith.” As on the southern route, officials representing the Italian and French governments participated.

Erie doubled its goal of one car to two, thanks in part to contributions sent from Meadville, Crawford County, and Franklin, Venango County. Three days before the train arrived, Erie held a “tag day,” which brought in nine hundred and seventy dollars. “Let’s stoke the friendship Train,” posters encour­aged. Containers placed throughout the city helped net a total cash contribution of more than seventy-one hundred dollars, while wholesale grocers gave one hun­dred and sixty cases of food. Erie’s box­cars, painted orange, left the city at 6:20 P.M., destined for Buffalo, New York.

In the Lehigh Valley, Allentown sent a truckload of canned meat to Philadelphia donated by the meatpacking firm of Arbogast and Bastian, Inc., with a matching gift from the Meat Cutters Union. A week later Allentown also sent an entire boxcar to Wee­hawken, New Jer­sey, where it was loaded onto a ship sailing to Europe. The Allentown chapter of the American Veterans Committee initiated the drive, and the Mothers of the Sec­ond World War campaigned for cash contributions. Spectators at a football game pitting Muhlenberg College against the University of Delaware donated pocket money, and Pottsville, the small Schuylkill County seat located thirty-five miles northwest of Allentown, sent sixteen thousand jars of baby food and one hundred and fifty cases of assorted comestibles. The story doesn’t end here, though.

Fourteen months later, on January 6, 1949, gifts of gratitude for the Friendship Train sailed from Le Havre, France. On Wednesday, February 2, the ore carrier Magellan steamed into New York’s har­bor. The Magellan was greeted by the United States Air Force (USAF), whose F-80s, the first combat jets acquired in quantity, and F-82s, the USAF’s last propeller-driven fighters, sliced through the skies. While fire boats sprayed plumes of water high overhead, an assortment of pleasure crafts, tankers, and tugs blasted their whistles, and people everywhere cheered. The Magellan, emblazoned with “Merci, America,” carried France’s gifts of gratitude, two hundred and fifty tons worth, in forty-nine railroad boxcars christened the Merci Train.

The idea of the Merci Train, officially titled, Train de la Recon­naissance au Peuple Américain, translated as the Gratitude Train, was the brainchild of Andre Picard, a French railroad worker, whose thought was simple and genuine – to thank Americans for the Friendship Train. Originally, Picard’s idea was to send a single boxcar filled with gifts, but as the press continued to cover the story, the French government gave responsibility for the project to the National Headquarters of the French War Veterans Associa­tions. Picard accompanied the train to America, where a professor served as his translator.

The Merci Train boxcars, built between 1872 and 1885, held emotional memories for American soldiers. Known as “forty and eights,” they each could hold forty soldiers or eight horses to be transported to and from front lines in France during both world wars and were unheated in winter. Within two days of their arrival in 1949, the cars were on various railroad lines, heading for the forty-eight state capitals. Hawaii and Washington, D.C., shared the forty-ninth car. The boxcars were transported on flatbed railcars and trucks because their narrow gauge prevented them from traveling on rails in the United States.

France’s gifts to America ranged from the fairly humble to the utterly fabu­lous-an antique bust of Benjamin Franklin, a bugle which signaled the end of World War I, forty-nine vases made by the famous Sevres factory given by France’s President Vincent Auriol. A cou­ple sent the uniform worn by their son who had been killed in World War I. Two men donated their eyes, upon their death, to the American Eye Bank. A little girl, who gave her doll, cut her own hair and pasted it on the doll’s head. A descendant of the Marquis de Lafayette donated the diplomat’s walking stick. One French newspaper reported that a woman, impoverished by the Nazi occupation, rushed to one of the forty and eight cars when it was being painted and pressed her fingers into the wet paint, crying, “I have nothing else to send, I will send them my fingerprints!” Just as the Friendship Train touched their hearts, the gesture of the “Gratitude Train” likewise warmed American hearts.

The Merci Train, with its gifts for the Keystone State, first stopped in Philadelphia, where two thousand people greeted the bright red boxcar at Broad Street Station at 11:45 A.M. on Saturday, February 5, 1949. Among the spectators were members of the Ameri­can Legion’s 40 and 8 and a thousand schoolchildren waving French and American flags. The Police and Firemen’s Band performed and the Breen-McCracken Post 297 of the American Legion served as color guard. Ambas­sador Bonnet and Michel Junet, head of the French delegation and representative of Prime Minister Henri Queuille, profusely thanked Americans.

On Sunday, the train stopped briefly in Lancaster at 9:30 AM., where officials again commended America for its gen­erosity. And then it was on to the state capital, where, as in most states, the most elaborate celebration was held. It was a beautiful day, and an afternoon parade, in which the boxcar was the centerpiece, wound through Harrisburg’s city streets. The parade ended at the old State Museum (now the Speaker Matthew J. Ryan Legislative Office Building) for a ceremony. Francois Puaux, Assistant French Consul General in New York, presented boxcar number five, bearing forty cases of treasures, to Governor Duff. The governor ceremoniously broke the official seal on the car and, in turn, presented its forty cases to fellow Pennsylvanians.

France’s gifts to Penn­sylvania included books, dolls, seeds, pictures, postcards, jewelry, toys, tableware, books, pho­tographs, ashtrays – and an automobile! An electrician in Rouen contributed one of the first petroleum-operated vehicles ever manufactured in France. From Paris came candleholders, a statue, costume drawings, engravings, games and toys, lace, photographs, a walking stick, medals, a copper vase, a faience bowl, a small hammer, and a coffee pot.

Despite having made a complete inventory of the Merci Train objects, The State Museum of Pennsylvania has no record of their disposition. A precious few objects are known to survive in Altoona and Williamsport. The Blair County Historical Society, housed in Altoona’s historic Baker Mansion, owns twenty objects. Among them are a cov­ered porcelain sugar bowl with an acorn handle on the lid from “Miss Goudre” of Villesbanne; a toy Renault windup car with paper instructions; matching red and black laced leatherette comb and specta­cles cases; an eighteen-inch strand of blown black glass beads; a book of draw­ings of the provinces of France by E. Sau­ton of Paris; and a book, Sous la botte des nazis (Under the Boot of the Nazis) by Jean Eparvier. The Lycoming County Historical Society in Williamsport has about thirty pieces in its collections, although most are postcards. Some gifts were addressed to specific individuals or institutions. The State Museum retains a “Merci Album” scrapbook, containing newspaper clip­pings, watercolors, prose, and letters and notes presented to Governor Duff by French school children, “in grateful recognition of the kindness shown to them by the citizens of Pennsylvania.” It’s likely that the organizations and institutions to which the objects were presented tagged and exhibited them at the time, but as the years passed, their significance and appeal faded, relegating them to relative obscurity and perhaps retired to storage rooms. Many may have been deacces­sioned over the years.

Many states have no idea of the location of their French treasures. Others, notably Arizona and Idaho, exhibit their gifts in museums, bearing the original tags containing the names and addresses of the donors. While most states have taken steps to preserve and display each of their boxcars, seven states have lost their boxcars to fires, neglect, or deliberate destruction. The 40 and 8 chapters, a branch of the American Legion, have taken the lead in elevating the boxcars to museum status.

Pennsylvania’s boxcar, fortunately, was rescued from oblivion by a preservation committee and the Pennsylvania National Guard, which raised funds for its restoration. In November 1986, a dedication ceremony was held for the display of the boxcar along Clement Avenue, at Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation near Annville, Lebanon County. The shields of France’s provinces that had been affixed to the sides of the boxcar are safely stowed by Fort Indiantown Gap’s military museum to avoid vandalism and theft.

The symbolism represented by the Friendship Train and the Merci Train far exceeded the material value of the food and gifts exchanged. The goodwill shared by Pennsylvanians, as well as all Americans, the French, and the Italians was a spec­tacular gesture that raised hopes for the future after a devastating war.


For Further Reading

Bonney, Thérèse. Europe’s Children, 1939 to 1943. New York: Plantin Press, 1943.

Pearson, Drew, and Tyler Abell, ed. Diaries, 1949-1959. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.

Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. [Pennsylvania] Agriculture in World War II. Harrisburg: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Bureau of Farm Show and World War II Commemorative Committee, 1995.

Roll, Baron Eric. The Combined Food Board: A Study in Wartime International Planning. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Uni­versity Press, 1956.


Dorothy R. Scheele is a free­lance writer and former English teacher living in Philadelphia. She has been researching and writing about both the 1947 Friendship Train and the 1949 Merci Train for several years. She became interested in raising public awareness of these fascinating stories after seeing gifts from the Merci Train on exhibit at the Arizona Capitol Muse­um in Phoenix.