ORPHAN TRAINS

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Wayne Lammers Collection

Orphan trains operated in the US from the mid-1880s to about 1929. These trains were a way that social services agencies, one of the first being the Children’s Aid Society, would gather children together and then put them aboard trains destined for the Midwest where people would meet the children at train depots and decide which child they wanted.

 

This was brought about by the horrendous conditions that many children were living under in New York and surrounding areas, where there was no system of foster care or other alternative care systems as we have today.  Between 1854 and 1929, an estimated 200,000 or more homeless and orphaned children were sent west from eastern cities, accompanied by agents. The purpose was to find families that would take in children in a “free-home-placing-out” program instituted by the Children’s Aid Society of New York City, New York. The children were sent in groups of twenty-five to 100 on trains, making stops along the way where they might be chosen by some family who wanted a child or needed extra help.

 

Here are the pictures of three children from Orphan Trains that found homes in the Pilot Grove area.  Photos and text from the Carolyn Aggelar Collection.

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Joseph Hastely

Born: 1892 was baptized March 16 1892 in NYFH Chapel

Arrived on the orphan train in 1887 in Pilot Grove, Mo. 65348

 

Anton Gerke Family “Lucy” adopted May 24, 1892.

Joseph John Lammers

Birth April 30 1892 New York, USA  Death July 29 1983 at the age of 91

Bakersfield, Kern County, California, USA  Buried Union Cemetery Bakersfield, Kern County, California, USA

 

This young man is JOSEPH JOHN KRAMER LAMMERS (1892-1983). He was one of 23 orphans on the Orphan Train that stopped in Pilot Grove, Missouri. He was from the Sisters of Misericordia (Quebec) Catholic Orphanage in New York City. His biological father was Joseph Kramer (23 yrs. old) and his mother was Lina Leyheim (20 yrs. old), both of Germany/New York City. He was placed in the orphanage when he was only 3 days old on May 3, 1892. He was adopted by Henry and Wilhelmina (Von der Haar) Lammers of Chouteau Springs in 1894. His surname then changed to Lammers sometime after 1900. In those early days, known as John Joseph (Kramer) Lammers. In addition, mentioned, in the Last Will and Testament of Henry Lammers, 21 Feb 1914.

(Missouri, Cooper County Record of Wills, Vol E, 1910-1918)

He worked on the railroad in Sedalia, Missouri; Flathead, Montana, and San Bernardino, California. He raised his family in Bakersfield, California.  . He had two sons, Paul and Fred and one daughter Joanne who was born in 1957 when he was age 64.  He served his country in WW1 in the Navy and was awarded The Purple Heart for his service.

His adopted siblings were: Clemens Augustine Lammers (Alice Lammers Schupp’s dad); Fredrick John Lammers; Henry George Lammers; John H. Lammers; Christina Mary Lammers Bradshaw; Frank Peter Lammers

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Carl E. Nelson, age 10, got off the Orphan Train in Pilot Grove in 1900 and was adopted into the family of Abraham Brownfield.  His mother had left him with the Orphan Asylum Society of Brooklyn at just a few years of age.  He attended the funeral of his father, who died September 14, 1900, and not long after that his mother inquired at the Society to take him back.  But Carl had boarded the Orphan Train on September 21.

 

Ten years later Carl began a two-year series of correspondence in search of his family through the Orphan Society and the New York Department of Health, writing in pencil on a lined pad asking, “And haven’t you got no record of Mr. Nelson’s childrens?  Send me there addresses, for I would like to find them so bad, and my mother, too.”  His father was identified but his mother had moved.  In 1912 he made a personal plea to the president of the Borough of Brooklyn, and a notice was placed in a local newspaper, which was seen by his mother.

 

Carl returned to New York where he was reunited with his mother and siblings, living there for four years and serving in the Coast Guard.  He moved back to Pilot Grove and in 1917 married his local sweetheart, Geneva Martin, and they raised a family of three children in his adopted home town.

Carl Nelson is my adopted great-uncle.  (Bert McClary)

                       

The following account covers the reason for the trains and how the process worked.  Wien Missouri is in Chariton County.

By Denis Fessler

November 10, 2004

 

The community of Wien, Missouri was settled in the latter part of the 19th century, primarily by individuals of German heritage.  Early residents left their families in Germany, Indiana, and other states, and made their way to the fertile fields of north-central Missouri to establish new lives.  But some arrived as children with no families other than perhaps a sibling or two.  They came from New York City by way of what we call now the Orphan Trains. 

 

The Beginning

New York City in the 19th century suffered from the same problems as many large urban areas, then as now – overpopulation, unemployment, poverty, prejudice, drugs, crime.  Also at that time hundreds of thousands of immigrants were pouring into New York City each year, often penniless upon their arrival.  The Statue of Liberty proclaimed: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”.  And so they came.  This exacerbated the already significant problem of homeless children – orphans, runaways, or abandoned.   Even some caring parents left their infants on the doorsteps of the wealthy, hospitals, and the churches, hoping they might find better lives.  An estimated 30,000 children were abandoned on the streets in New York City in 1854[1].

 

To help remedy this situation, Charles Loring Brace, a 26-year-old Congregational Minister, founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853.  Children were taken off the street, cared for, educated, and taught a trade.  But the need soon outgrew the means.  So he took up the plan that Boston had tried ten years earlier – sending orphans “West” on trains to families at the various stops along the way who were willing to adopt them.  The first train was sent out on September 20, 1854 with 46 ten-to-twelve-year-old boys and girls. Their destination was Dowagiac, Michigan.  All 46 children were successfully placed in new homes.[2]

This system endured for 77 years, from 1854 to1930.  By the 1870’s the New York Foundling Hospital, run by the Catholic Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul, began sending orphans to Catholic families.  Together, an estimated 150,000-400,000 children were sent West on the trains - from Indiana to Kansas, Minnesota to Texas.  As many as 100,000 orphans were placed in Missouri.  Some 50 became members of the Wien community.

 

The Process

The Children’s Aid Society would send notices to local postmasters along the train’s route announcing the time and date a trainload of orphans would arrive in each community.  Those notices would be posted in post offices, stores, churches, and newspapers.  Typically 25-35 children were placed on a train under the supervision of only 1 or 2 adults (usually a man and a woman), called “agents” (note the railroad term).  Initially the children’s ages ranged from 3 to 17, although later this was narrowed to 5 to 12.  Sometimes agents preceded the train by several weeks to organize a selection committee and to screen prospective foster parents.

Shortly before the day of departure (oftentimes just the night before) the children would be told that they were going on the train, and they would be bathed, their hair tended to, and given new clean clothing.  Then they would board the train, and off they went to their new destiny.  It was a long trip from New York, but many of the children were able to see for the first-time fields of crops and animals, orchards, forests and large open areas. 

Upon arrival in one of the projected towns, they would disembark and go to a meeting place such as a church, hotel, courthouse, opera house, or the train depot, and be lined up on a stage or platform at the front of the room.  Usually, a local town “committee” had been at work prior to the arrival of the train, trying to line up good potential families for the expected children.  At this time, members of the community would be allowed to visit with (and inspect) the children.  If a match-up was made between adult and child, and the local committee and placing agents approved, a written agreement was signed.  Then the child would leave the group and go on to his/her “new home”.  Contact continued thereafter by semi-annual letters and occasional visits by representatives of the Children’s Aid Society.

Overall the system worked very well.  The orphans had a better chance at life with placement in a new home “out West”, than they did remaining in New York.  Thousands of children were removed from lives on the street or in orphanages and placed in loving families.  A 1910 report of the Children’s Aid Society gave the final destinations of the children they had sent out on the Orphan Trains.  It listed all 48 States plus the District of Columbia and Canada, with the majority going to the Midwest.  There were some problems, but these should not detract from the successes of the Orphan Trains.  Children were shipped with no certainty that they would be adopted.  Some were not, and returned on the train to New York and the orphanage.  The children had to face the ordeal of separation from home, leaving familiar surroundings and perhaps parents, brothers and sisters.  Some left New York with siblings but were separated upon selection, often to never see their brothers and sisters again.  English-speaking children were placed with foster parents who spoke another language (e.g., German), and vice-versa.  Sometimes children went from one family to another, to another.  Foster parents were also allowed to return children who did not “work out”.  Not all orphans were treated well.

A record of the Children’s Aid Society noted that in 1871 more than 3,000 orphans were transported at an expense of $31,638, which included train tickets, food and the agent’s salaries1 – approximately $10 per child!

The New York Foundling Hospital

Charles Brace required that the adopting home be Christian.  However, there were complaints that Catholic children did not always go to Catholic families.  This, in part, led the Catholic New York Foundling Hospital to begin sending children on their own version -- the Mercy Trains.

Sister Irene Fitzgerald, a Sister of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul, opened the New York Foundling Hospital to help address the monumental problem of homeless and unwanted children.  It was incorporated on October 8, 1869.  Three days later on October 11th, the Feast of the Maternity of Our Lady, Sister Irene and her two companions, Sister Teresa Vincent and Sister Ann Aloysia, moved into a small house at 17 East 12th Street.  Although they expected to spend three months preparing for the opening of the institutions, an infant was laid on the door-step that very first night.  Before January 1, 1870, the proposed opening date, they had received 123 babies.  When they finally opened the doors formally, a white cradle was placed in the foyer of their building where mothers could anonymously leave their children to be cared for by the sisters.[3]

The story of Sister Irene and The New York Foundling Hospital runs parallel with that of Rev. Brace and the Children’s Aid Society.  However, there were a few key differences.  The Sisters worked in conjunction with Priests throughout the Midwest and South in an effort to place these children in Catholic families, whereas the Children’s Aid Society requested that the children they placed be given spiritual training but left the choice of religion up to the “adoptive” family.  Also, the children from the Foundling Hospital tended to be younger than those from the Children’s Aid Society.2

Probably the largest difference in how the Foundling Hospital placed their children is that the children were not sent out to be “randomly” adopted, but were “requested” ahead of time by families who wanted a child.  Requests would be sent to the New York Foundling Home for a child (for example: a 2-year-old, blue eyed, blond haired girl), and then the Sisters would do their best to find a “matching” child.  They would then send the requesting family a “receipt” for the child telling when and where the child would arrive by train.  This notice requested that the family be at the station ahead of time so as not to miss the train.  For each child, the sisters of the hospital made a suit or dress with his or her name and the name of the new parents pinned on the inside of the back collar.  When the train arrived, the new parents were to have their “notice of arrival” with them which they were to present to the Sisters.  This notice had a number on it that would match up with a child on the train.  Once the match was made, the parents would sign the “receipt” for the child, and they were free to leave with their new child. 

Not everyone embraced the concept of the Orphan Trains.  As noted earlier, there were several problems.  In Missouri, a law was passed in 1901 forbidding the orphan trains, purportedly because the Children’s Aid Society “is pouring carloads of children into the state without properly supervising them”.  Apparently the law was never enforced because it did not stop the trains.

The last of the orphan trains came to Missouri in 1929.  By then most states had passed stricter adoption laws and policies.  Many Eastern states and cities assumed more responsibility in caring for orphans, and so the trains were no longer needed.  Also, the onset of the Depression made it more difficult for families to take on the responsibilities of additional children.

But the Orphan Trains left a lasting legacy.  Thousands of children left the streets and orphanages of New York, and other large Eastern cities, to find homes with loving families.  It was an inexpensive way out of solving juvenile crime.  But its greatest triumph was proving the value of foster families, and for that millions of children have benefited since the last train headed west out of New York City carrying homeless children to a new life of hope.  This article is written in memory of my great-great-aunt Christine Harmon, who came to Wien on the orphan train in the 1890’s and was adopted by my great-great-grandmother Therese Biegel.

THE RAILROADS THAT MADE IT POSSIBLE

 

The first railroad line across Missouri was built in 1859 from Hannibal to St. Joseph.  This is known today as the Burlington-Northern line that still runs through New Cambria and Bucklin – most likely the final stop for the orphans who were adopted by families around Wien.  It was not until 1868 that the first train bridge across the Mississippi River from Illinois to Missouri was built at Quincy.  The other railroad line in the area of Wien, known today as the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe, came down out of Southeast Iowa, crossed the Burlington-Northern at Bucklin and went through Marceline on its way southwest.  Stations were ultimately built in New Cambria, Bucklin, and Marceline, but a station was not required for the Orphan Train.  The trains made “whistle stops” between stations to pick up and drop off passengers, mail – and orphans.

Not everyone embraced the concept of the Orphan Trains.  As noted earlier, there were several problems.  In Missouri, a law was passed in 1901 forbidding the orphan trains, purportedly because the Children’s Aid Society “is pouring carloads of children into the state without properly supervising them”.1  Apparently the law was never enforced because it did not stop the trains.

The last of the orphan trains came to Missouri in 1929.  By then most states had passed stricter adoption laws and policies.  Many Eastern states and cities assumed more responsibility in caring for orphans, and so the trains were no longer needed.  Also, the onset of the Depression made it more difficult for families to take on the responsibilities of additional children.

But the Orphan Trains left a lasting legacy.  Thousands of children left the streets and orphanages of New York, and other large Eastern cities, to find homes with loving families.  It was an inexpensive way out of solving juvenile crime.  But its greatest triumph was proving the value of foster families, and for that millions of children have benefited since the last train headed west out of New York City carrying homeless children to a new life of hope.  This article is written in memory of my great-great-aunt Christine Harmon, who came to Wien on the orphan train in the 1890’s and was adopted by my great-great-grandmother Therese Biegel.

For More Information

An excellent site that covers these trains is found at Social Welfare Orphan Trains.

Many books and articles have been written about the Orphan Trains.   One of the best, and a source of much of the information in this article, is Orphan Trains to Missouri, by Michael D. Patrick and Evelyn Goodrich Trickel, published in 1997.   It is available in libraries and can be purchased on the Internet.   Articles on the Internet that I found particularly good include:  

A History of the Orphan Trains, by Connie DiPasquale

The New York Foundling Hospital

Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc.,

614 East Emma Avenue, No. 115, Springdale, AR  72764 , 501-756-2780.

 

National Orphan Center Complex:  There is a museum and research center dedicated to the preservation of the stories of Orphan Train riders and how they lived once they were placed in their adoptive homes.

300 Washington St., P.O. Box 322, Concordia, KS 66901 email: info@orphantraindepot.org

 

Orphan Train Heritage Society of America:  The Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc. (OTHSA)—founded in 1986 in Springdale (Washington and Benton counties)—preserves the history of the orphan train era, a period when thousands of children were relocated across the country.

 

PBS video on Orphan Trains

 

PBS website with links to Orphan Train information