ORPHAN TRAINS REVISIT EAST TEXAS
By: PATRICK BUTLER, Religion Editor
EXPOSED: Audience members learn about the 19th-century phenomenon for the
first time on Sunday during a presentation by Alison Moore and Phil
Lancaster. (Staff Photo by Patrick Butler)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part one of a two-part series on America's "orphan
trains" that criss-crossed America and brought more than 1,000 orphans
To escape the brutality, starvation and death of 19th-century New York
City streets, a Methodist minister loaded thousands of orphans into
trains headed west with stops that included Smith County.
About 250,000 orphans, alone, without familiar surroundings, friends or
an inkling where they were going were "distributed" in towns throughout
America for 75 years from 1854 to 1929, said singer-scholars Alison Moore
and Phil Lancaster at the Lindale Library on Sunday.
The presentation was sponsored by the Humanities and Arts Council of
"There was no existing alternative to the orphan trains," said Lancaster to the standing-room-only crowd in the library's community center. "The likelihood that thousands of children would freeze or die of disease in New York was high. At times, about 20,000 or more children were abandoned, homeless in the city and wandering the streets. The kids called themselves street Arabs."
Newspapers and "respectable" citizens of the city called them "the
dangerous classes" states the National Benevolent Society Web site at
www.childabuse.org. It was Methodist minister Charles Loring Brace,
founder of the New York Children's Aid Society, who traded his safe
pastorate for a life of social service to street and slum dwellers,
Lancaster and Ms. Moore said. The Society hails Loring as the "founder of modern foster-care." In 1854,there was no template or faith-based program encouraged by governmentexisting in America, that the pioneering Brace could pattern himself after, Lancaster said.
"He hit on the idea of shipping orphans to farm families, copying a
venture done in Germany on a limited basis," Lancaster told the Tyler
Morning Telegraph. "The idea worked, but it worked too well."
There were tens of thousands of orphans over the years who needed help,and the society eventually could not keep track of them all. Some of thekids simply disappeared There were happy endings, and there were sadendings too."
Tyler resident Melissa Dickerson said her grandfather, George Lewis
Webster, turned out to be one of the "happy endings."
"Thank God for the orphan trains, or none of us would be here today, but he was only 7 years old when he was put on a train and he came to Tyler," said Ms. Dickerson, dabbing at tears in her eyes. "He was such a sweet, wonderful man who never said a harsh word.
"Hearing today about how hard it could be for them made me realize how
scared he must have been, how hard it was for him. He never talked to usmuch about it."
That is not unusual, Lancaster and Ms. Moore said.
"Orphans didn't want to be known as 'shipped away' or doled out to
families, or unwanted kids," said Ms. Moore. "It could be painful to be on an orphan train."
It could be dangerous, too.
Describing a "composite" orphan gleaned from her research, the former
assistant professor of creative writing and English at the University of Arizona said, "Children would be herded off the trains to the local opera house or meeting hall, where they would be put on stage and examined by locals who would check their teeth, strength of body and size them up for labors they wanted down around the farm. Some families wanted to take care of a child, but others wanted a slave."
Texas received at least 1,200 orphans and the last train to Texas went to Sulphur Springs in 1929, the presenters said. Children not chosen were "put back on the train and many shuttled from family to family and town to town."
There was religious controversy too, said Lancaster.
"Brace was a Protestant, and Catholics wanted Catholic orphans to be
raised by Catholic families," he said. "They started their own program
and called it 'Mercy Trains' and Protestants in rural America wanted to know why they weren't good enough to be parents to needy children who had no options."
The Catholic Home Bureau was organized in New York by the St. Vincent De Paul Society, the first Catholic agency to place children in homes rather than orphanages. It was not until 1912 that Congress created the U.S. Children's Bureau in the Department of Labor under its first chief, a woman. The department's mission was to "investigate and report on all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of people."
Controversy didn't stop the or-phan trains, Lancaster said, be-cause
essentially there was no other plan.
"Sometimes the trains, which were not entire trains but a chartered car or two by the society, were sent at Christmas time because people were supposed to be more open-hearted at that time of year."
Brace was counting on the "good nature of religious Ameri-cans in rural places to open their hearts and their homes to or-phans," wrote Brace's daughter, Emma, who edited his letters for the book, "The Life and Letters of Charles Loring Brace."
Posted at the Benevolent Association site is an advertisement first
printed in the Tory, Mo., Free Press of Feb. 11, 1910, announcing the
arrival of an orphan train on Feb. 25, 1910 - "These children are of
various ages and both sexes, having been thrown friendless upon the world ... They are well-disciplined, having come from various orphanages. The citizens of this community are asked to assist the agent in finding good homes for them.
"Persons taking these children must be recommended by the local
committee. They must treat the children in every way as a member of the family, sending them to school, church, Sabbath school (sic) and properly clothe them until they are 17 years old."
Once Brace started his work, his office was inundated with orphans, said the association.
Brace wrote, "Most touching of all was the crowd of wandering little ones who found their way to the office. Ragged young girls who had nowhere to lay their heads; children driven from drunkards' homes; orphans who slept where they could find a box or stairway; boys cast out by stepmothers or stepfathers; newsboys (who said) 'don't live nowhere'; little bootblacks; young peddlers; pickpockets and petty thieves trying to get honest work; child beggars and flower sellers growing up to enter courses of crime - all this motley throng of infantile misery and childish guilt passed through our doors, telling their simple stories of suffering, loneliness and temptation until our hearts became sick."
Patrick Butler covers religion. email: firstname.lastname@example.org