The books on the gift shop shelf featured grainy photos of children huddled around coal driven steam engines. Dressed in turn of the century clothes, some ragamuffins carried grief like luggage, but others appeared wide eyed with adventure. “Orphan trains,” my brother explained. “Those children were adopted here in the St. Cloud, Minnesota area. They spoke in the school system for years about their experiences.” I bought an armload of books.
Subsequent research detailed how, for 70 years until 1930, an average of 300 waifs per month rode to the Midwest from Five Points, New York City, to be adopted by church sponsored families. That’s 250,000 children.
But what kind of mother put children on these trains, and how well did the children do in their new homes? For two years, I read every book, magazine article, or Google account. My husband and I attended the Little Falls Orphan Train Reunion and met four elderly riders. We traveled to Concordia, Kansas, and researched at the Orphan Train Museum. Then I realized how the suffering of Irish immigrant women contributed to the homeless waifs overflowing onto the streets of New York City. Women who could no longer care for their children gave them up to the chance of a new life through what we now call foster or adoptive agencies.
Reading the accounts of these riders as they tried to assimilate into the Midwest proved to be inspiring and heart wrenching. Most eventually made the transition. Some never did. The adoptive families faced overwhelming challenges. But, women like Clara Comstock rode the train with the children, settled them into their homes, and checked on them every year. These agents introduced the class of social workers of today with their grit and determination to meet the needs of traumatized children.
Of course, a book resulted from this research, as did magazine articles and chances to speak to book clubs and geneology groups. An awareness of how Irish immigration led to the greatest movement of children in the United States has been the result of my search into history. And it all started in the gift shop of a museum.
Cleo Lampos is a retired teacher of behavior disordered students. A foster child herself, Lampos understands the difficulties of broken childhoods. An author, teacher and storyteller, Lampos wrote A Mother’s Song, a novel about two mothers and the child who loves both of them. Find her at her website, or find the book on Amazon.