16 April 2007

The Orphan Train story

Ever heard of Dowagiac, Michigan? It was the first stop of the first Orphan Train in 1854.

Author (A Faraway Home: An Orphan Train Story) Janie Lynn Panagopoulos told the Dowagiac Daily News the story of those 45 children, ages 6-15: "desperate, homeless children enduring squalid conditions on the streets or in filthy tenements - more often abandoned than without parents - to start new lives with loving farm families in America's heartland."

"Had this first train trip to your community not worked well" in 1854, she said Thursday night, "the children who were to follow between 1854 and 1928, 250,000 lives would be lost. You all set in motion a great thing. The Children's Aid Society (CAS) still exists in New York City, but it probably wouldn't if that first train hadn't been successful."

No one family could afford to take two brothers, but rather than separate them, they were placed at adjacent farms. A German Jewish boy was taken in by a doctor. An affluent farm family adopted "Sweet Meg."

She describes the horrible conditions of New York City.

In 1851, there were 4,000 inmates younger than 21 locked up in adult prisons; 800, ages 10-14; and 175 ages 4-9 "committing murder trying to steal food to survive. At 4, a child could be cast out on the street and not be taken care of because they could crawl in the trash and look for food on their own." The police chief estimated there were 40,000 homeless children subsisting on the streets.

"They were walking rag bundles, scabbed over and dirty. Layer after layer of crust which took three or four scrubbing baths before they got down to their skin," the author said.

According to the author, Charles Loring Brace, horrified by the conditions in New York, introduced the idea of transplanting urban orphans to healthier rural lifestyles after investigating similar European practices.

Many of the kids rescued by relocation went on to have great success in life: there were governors, members of Congress, mayors, a Supreme Court justice, artists, businessmen, educators and more.

Read the complete story here.

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