As World War I raged in Europe a century ago, Salvator Cillis, a young Italian immigrant living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, took a ride on the Long Island Rail Road on his way to basic training. His train was packed with Army troops bound for Camp Upton in Yaphank and left Penn Station to cheering crowds.
“When we reached Jamaica, we changed trains, and then the trip for real started,” wrote Cillis in a letter to co-workers at the M.R. Levy Sign Painting Co. in Manhattan that was dated Sept. 24, 1917. He and his fellow draftees watched bucolic Long Island unfold, as residents of each village along the line greeted them as the train passed. “They were all there giving us the hip-hip-hooray,” Cillis wrote. “Even the cows stopped from eating and smiled at us.”
While the view has certainly changed with the passage of 100 years, Cillis’ observations of Long Island have been preserved. Rendered in witty prose and charming illustrations (including a letter with a drawing of a cow smiling at the passing train from its pasture), they are now at the heart of an exhibition of World War I art at the New-York Historical Society.
In 1946, Morris Van Deen, one of the co-workers who received a letter, donated the collection of 19 letters and eight postcards to the historical society. Seven of the best —…
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