The Story of the Orphan Train

The Story of the Orphan Train

Orphan Train Museum

Posted June 23, 2024

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In the United States, the population exploded in the late 1800s and early 1900s due to massive immigration, especially in Boston and New York City. Much of the population at the time consisted of impoverished families. If one parent died, the other often could not care for the children. As a result, many of these children were put on orphan trains and sent away to be adopted or sometimes indentured by families across the country. The National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas preserves the story of the loving workers and impoverished children behind the orphan trains.

The Orphan Train History

During its operation, 250,000 children rode the orphan trains to destinations across the continental United States. Most went to the Midwest and West, but New England and the South also received some. Occasionally, children were sent to Canada. Sometimes older boys were placed in indentures or apprenticeships on ships.

About half of the orphan train riders were American-born. Most were white with Western European backgrounds. The agency felt that white European children would be the easiest to place in loving homes. There were also some Italian, Armenian and children of color placed on orphan trains.

A Tale of Two Orphan Train Stories

As with any enterprise that attempts only good results, occasionally things go wrong. The National Orphan Train Complex shares the story of two brothers, Oliver and Edward Nordmark through a windowpane photo. The boys and their sister, Anna, were children of emigrants, Otto and Lizzie. Lizzie suffered from a drinking problem which led to the couple’s separation. Arrested for public drunkenness in 1904, Lizzie died in her cell a short time later.

The children were placed in an orphanage in 1907. In 1908, Oliver and Edward rode the Orphan Train to Bern, Kansas, where a family adopted them. The placement didn’t work out. Subsequently, the boys were placed with two different families in Mankato, Kansas. Unfortunately, things did not go well for Edward. He was returned to the Children’s Aid Society (CAS)  where the orphan train program began. He remained in an orphanage with his records marked as “not placeable.” Arrested in New York in 1929 for armed robbery, Edward spent much of his life in prison. He died in 1958 at the age of 57.

Oliver’s life tells a happier story. Adopted by the McCannon family, Oliver remained with them until 1913. He then returned to New York, possibly in search of his brother. Oliver joined the US Navy and served as a quartermaster in WWI. He married and had six children. After his wife died in later life, he bought a camper and traveled across the country visiting relatives, including the McCannon family.

Orphan train interior

Inside the Orphan Train

Understanding the Orphan Train Stories

The Cloud County Historical Society Museum Annex shares space with the visitor’s center and displays the Whole Wall Mural. This hand-sculpted brick mural claims the title of the largest in the US. The mural depicts the Orphan Train story and much of Concordia’s history.

Inside there are many antique cars and out front there is a statue of Agent Anna Laura Hill and Anna Louise Doherty, one of the orphan children. The story continues at the National Orphan Train Complex (NOTC).

The NOTC experience begins with a video telling the story of the organizations that used the orphan trains. Founded in 1853 by Charles Loring Brace who saw the poverty in New York’s poorest neighborhoods, the first group of orphans included 46 children from ages 7 to 15 who were placed on a train to Dowagiac, Michigan.

The video shares the story of Agent Hill who served as a placing agent. Her role and that of another eight agents included accompanying groups of children on the train rides from New York westward. She joined CAS in 1903 and made 160 rail trips accompanying children out west. Several times a year, agents would visit each adopting home to be sure the child was being cared for properly. Hill never married or had children of her own and considered the orphans her family. She corresponded with them until her death.

The Orphan Train Story Told Through Statues

Concordia boasts 46 statues of orphan train riders placed around the complex. Many of the plaques tell a happy story. One statue of a young boy with his arm stretched out towards a young girl who is pointing back at him tells the story of Howard Reed Dowell, born June 25, 1905, to the Reed family who were ranchers in upstate New York. Sadly, his parents and an older sister were killed while herding cattle across a frozen lake.

Afterward, Howard and his two siblings rode the orphan train to Belleview, Kansas, where they each found a loving home with different families but were able to remain in contact. Howard was placed with Juliet and Luthor Dowell near Cuba, Kansas. He remained on the Dowell farm, married and raised four children there. His descendants still call North Central Kansas home.

Orphan train Anna Laura Hill information in Depot

Anna Laura Hill’s Story

My Intimate Look at the Orphan Train

At the Jones Education Station, we viewed the Legend Train Car. Walking through the car we saw where as many as 20 to 50 children ages five to seventeen, occupied a single rail car. It’s hard to imagine all the children using the small pot for a bathroom partially shielded by some suitcases in front of it.

The 1917 Union Pacific Depot, also in the complex, divides into 4 rooms: the freight room, the men’s waiting room, the stationmaster’s office, and the women’s waiting room. Each room featured exhibits illustrating the story of the orphan train movement.

On display, photos, clothes, and other items belonging to orphan train riders share insights into their stories. Placards share additional stories focused on how the CAS worked and stories of the men and women who founded and kept the Orphan Train running until 1929.

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  • Kathleen Walls, former reporter for Union Sentinel in Blairsville, GA, is publisher/writer for American Roads and Global Highways. She is the author of several travel books including Georgia’s Ghostly Getaways, Finding Florida’s Phantoms, Hosts With Ghosts, and Wild About Florida series.  Kathleen's articles have appeared in Family Motor Coaching Association Magazine, Food Wine Travel Magazine, Weekender Extended, Travel World International,  Tours4Mobile and others. She is a photographer with many of her original photographs appearing in her travel ezine, American Roads, as well as other publications. Her fiction includes Last Step, which was made into a feature movie of the same name by Forbes Productions, Kudzu, Under A Bloody Flag and Under A Black Flag. PODCAST FEATURE Listen to Kathleen's interview talking about the American south.