The Orphan Train
By Priscilla Wieck
Walking the Town Observations
As I write this, I am wondering whatever happened to our lovely spring weather. Temps in the low 50’s and, oh, that wind! Have any of you noticed how many more strong windy days we have experienced in the last year? If you are a sidewalk walker or an outdoor worker you know what I am writing about. Some sort of change in the weather patterns, I would guess.
I hope by the time you read this, our warmer temps have arrived. I can recall having school snow days in April many years ago, but never in May so I think we are no longer in that sort of danger. One benefit of these cooler weather days is that the spring bloomers have been on display for longer than usual.
Not so good for all those who are wanting to get into the fields for spring planting, however.
I have no more current thoughts about our virus situation except to wish you all well in your social isolation and to continue to encourage you who are able to get outside as much as possible, whenever possible. You can do your meet-and-greets on the sidewalks and still keep that recommended distance.
The Orphan Train
I have been doing some research on orphan trains, so today I am sharing some of my findings in this column. Mostly I am interested to find out if you readers have known or heard of someone who came to the Midwest on one of these trains.
The name ‘orphan train’ originated from railroad trains that carried thousands of children from overcrowded northeastern cities such as Boston and New York to live with families in the Mid-west. These trains operated from 1853 to 1929.
While some of these children were orphans, some had immigrant parents who were unable or unwilling to care for them. Others came from crowded slums and had been living on the streets. Eastern cities were happy to rid themselves of the almost impossible social burden of caring for them . The children ranged in age from 1 to 17 years of age.
Charles Loring Brace of the New York City Children’s Aid Society conceived the idea of mass relocation of children, the beginning of what we now call foster care. Between 1853 and 1929, an estimated 200,000 orphaned and abandoned children were placed in what is now known historically as The Orphan Train Movement.
The children were accompanied on the train by adult social workers and Catholic nuns. They left the train at each stop and were lined up for viewing to be chosen or not chosen by people who came to the station to see them.
I can only imagine how confused and bereft those children must have felt. Some were eventually adopted, but many were not. Some were ‘indentured’, meaning that they were chosen to labor on Midwestern farms. Many were well treated and loved , but again, many were not. Most were separated from their parents and siblings for the rest of their lives.
The orphan trains made many stops in Illinois and it is thought around 20,000 children were taken in by Illinois residents, mostly in rural areas. You can find a map of our state train stops that include Mt. Carroll, Bloomington, Champaign, Normal, Effingham, Murphysboro and other towns on the Illinois Historical Society website. Sadly, there are no records of the number of children chosen at each stop or of their family histories. They began their lives anew and their past was to be forgotten.
Perhaps someone from our area, needing an extra farm hand, went to one of those stops to find a child laborer. Or maybe a childless couple chose one of the babies to adopt. An over-worked farm wife might have needed a kitchen helper.
I can only hope that most children were able to live a fulfilling life and were treated well. Many books, documentaries and oral histories about the orphan train riders can be found in libraries and on Internet sites but I couldn’t find much about those children who were delivered into our nearby Illinois towns and villages. So I ask you readers: Have you known or have you heard of someone who was an orphan train rider? This sad part of our state’s history should not be forgotten.
“Home isn’t where you are from; it’s where you find the light when all grows dark”–anon.