Riding The Rails West
Madonna Dries Christensen
While writing an article about retirees in Sarasota, Florida, I interviewed a member of my writer's group. Mary Bowermaster died shortly after our visit, but the story she related about her childhood is reminiscent of those told by thousands of others during the last century.
When Mary told me she grew up in Minnesota's iron ore region; that she arrived there as a two-year-old aboard The Orphan Train, it piqued my curiosity. I had no idea what she meant and I urged her to continue. She began, "I was born July 3, 1914 in New York City, to Italian immigrant parents. My mother was fourteen, and my father, fifteen. My mother died in childbirth, along with my twin brother, Joseph. My father, unable to care for me, placed me in a foundling home. I was later put on The Orphan Train, headed west."
Through Mary' story, and further research, I learned that between 1853 and 1929 approximately a quarter million children were sent from the east coast to rural areas of the Midwest. City tenements were overcrowded with immigrants, and poverty and disease had forced many parents to abandon their children. Others were orphaned when parents and other relatives died from typhoid, influenza and other illnesses. In 1850, an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 children roamed New York City's streets or were warehoused in orphanages.
Seeking a solution to the problem, the Rev. Charles Loring Brace established The New York Children's Aid Society, and The Orphan Train. Brace and John Earl Williams, director of the Boston Children's Mission, organized the collection of orphans to board these trains. Most children were unaware of their destination; they were told only that this would be a great adventure. When they learned the reason for the trip, some were angry; but many were delighted to be given a new life.
Preceding a train's arrival, notices were posted in depots along the route. A typical one read: Wanted: Homes for children of various ages and of both sexes, having been thrown friendless upon the world. They are clean, healthy, good-looking, and disciplined, having come from orphanages. Persons taking these children must treat them kindly, as members of the family, send them to school, church and Sabbath School, and properly clothe them until they are 17-years-old.
Picture a locomotive stopped on the tracks, with up to forty children strewn alongside for "placing out." Bathed squeaky clean and given a bible to hold, the smiling waifs, from babies to teenagers, competed for potential parents. Like dolls displayed in a store window, the girls were gussied up in ruffled dresses and hair bows; the young gentlemen wore suits, ties and hats. Adults paraded by, scrutinizing, asking questions, seeking certain qualifications such as a child who spoke a particular language or was the right age. Local children sometimes taunted the strangers, calling them "train children" or "street urchins." When the train whistle screeched, the children not chosen climbed aboard, hoping for better luck at the next stop. Siblings were often separated, never to see each other again.
Critics scoffed that the program was an easy way for New Yorkers to rid themselves of unwanted people. But Brace believed the Midwest offered a healthy environment and good-hearted families, saying, "Entire change of circumstances is the best cure for the defects of the children of the lowest poor. There is no asylum equal to the farmer's home." There was truth in that; the majority of the children found good homes. For others, their troubles were only transported to another location. Some people wanted only cheap labor and either neglected or abused their foster children. From time to time, social workers removed children from such homes.
Mary was lucky. When she was older, her adoptive mother, Mrs. Le Duc, explained what happened the day they met. She had specified ahead of time that she wanted to adopt a blonde, blue-eyed infant girl and had been given a pink ribbon bearing the number sixteen, her claim to an orphan fitting that description. At the train station, a brown-eyed, brown-haired toddler tugged at her dress and called her Mommy. It was not number sixteen who went home with the Le Ducs, it was little Mary.
Although most Orphan Train children never saw their biological families again, when Mary was in her thirties, she and her birth father were reunited after searching for each other for years. "He wanted to know if I worked, what I did for a living," Mary said.
"When I told him I was a teacher, he didn't believe me. He said, ‘You mean you work in the lunch room.' When I told him again that I taught, he still didn't believe me. He said, ‘Oh, I know, you drive the school bus.' Then he asked who discovered America, and when I said Christopher Columbus, he smiled and teased, ‘Ha, I knew you aren't a teacher. It was Marco Polo.'"
Armed with a master's degree from the University of Toledo, Mary began her teaching career as a Notre Dame nun. She later left the sisterhood, married, raised a son and continued teaching. Although she always enjoyed the classroom, her true love was writing, but she didn't begin writing until after she quit teaching full-time. Then she put something in the mail every day. Her philosophy, "It might get rejected, but it won't get published if I don't submit." Over the years she published more than fifty short stories and reminiscences, and her autobiography, Kaleidoscope.
Despite her success, Mary valued critiques, saying, "There's always room for improvement. I'm not too old to learn." At eighty, even with hearing loss and failing eyesight, she worked as a substitute teacher on average twice a week. At Mary's funeral, her granddaughter spoke for the family, saying that her grandmother walked several miles to the beach every day, or to her teaching assignments; she loved riding in open convertibles and had been looking forward to signing copies of her soon to be published young adult novel.
Mary did not have that pleasure; The Cask of Christopher Columbus was published posthumously. But she left a legacy of words, as well as inspiration to others, among them, me. Her tale about the Orphan Train gave me the idea for a short story based on her experience. Thema literary journal published my story and nominated it for the Pushcart Prize. I have one of those "train kids" to thank for the honor.
The Orphan Train ceased running for several reasons: the Depression, a decreased need for farm labor, and new laws and programs implemented to help children who needed foster care.
Twenty years ago, an estimated 500 train riders were still living. Quite likely, only a few of those remain today. The Orphan Train Heritage Society of America hosts an annual reunion, and assists people in finding ancestors and living relatives. Individual states have organizations and hold reunions, too. An excellent book on the subject is The Orphan Trains; Placing Out In America, by Marilyn Holt (1992 University of Nebraska Press). There's a movie called Orphan Train, and several documentaries on the subject. Type "Orphan Train" into any Internet search engine and a vast array of sites will appear.
The Orphan Train phenomena is now widely explored by historians and genealogists, particularly those whose ancestors rode the rails during what is now called the largest children's migration in American history.