Orphan Trains: An important part of NW Illinois history

MOUNT CARROLL — Since 2008, when a good friend told her that her grandmother came to this area on an orphan train, Carol Chandler of Dixon has been researching this important part of history. The interest took over her life.

“This research has become a very important part of my life. I joke with my kids that when I die they should bury my research with me,” Chandler said during a presentation at the Carroll County Home Community Education meeting on April 11 at Naaman Diehl auditorium in Mount Carroll.

The Orphan Train movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded eastern cities of the United States to foster homes in rural areas of the Midwest. The trains operated from 1854 to 1929, relocating around 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children.

“In 1853, a wonderful man names Charles Loring Brace decided to help these children,” said Chandler.

With help from the New York Foundling Hospital, Brace began transporting these children to new homes via “orphan trains” or “baby trains.” This relocation of children ended in the 1920’s when foster care in America began.

Five percent of the population carry some orphan train history, and Chandler has found nine orphan train riders so far that were placed to families in Carroll County.

“Four million people immigrated to Boston and New York City with little or no money, some spoke little or no English. Jobs and labor were cheap. It was not uncommon to have 10 or more people in one room.

“Many of these children had parents who died, so many of them ended up on the streets. There were only seven orphanages at that time in the United States. These kids did anything to make money: shining shoes, selling paper flowers, stole; anything to stay alive,” Chandler said.

“Brace would seek out cities of a population of 800 or more, and would be sure to tell the townspeople that he was bringing good, physically fit children that were capable of working on farms. Some people would feel the kids muscles and inspect their teeth, much like you would do when buying horses. Children were valued for the work they could produce.

“Some kids were given wonderful lives, some were slaves. One small boy that I learned of was not very strong, so he was traded to a neighbor for a hog,” said Chandler.

“During the Industrial Revolution, children worked 24 hours a day. And farmers needed kids to work, so orphans only went to school 4 months of the year.”

But in 1874, Chandler said the public’s view point of family changed. Boarding houses in New York heard reports of kids being beaten.

“At that time, there were no laws preventing cruelty to children, but there was a law preventing cruelty to animals,” she said.

In 1875, the government stepped in. In 1896, a law was passed stating that all children in institutions were required to have a doctor’s examination every year. The last orphan train ended in 1929 in Sulfur Springs, Texas. She said kids were sent to every state in the union before the train ended.

During her many years of researching this topic, Chandler has found many wonderful, and horrible, stories.

“Many of these kids grew up to work in social services, become lawyers, and pastors. One story I found was about two brothers that were placed in different homes, but were later reunited after 85 years. One of those gentlemen had wound up in Maquoketa, Iowa. They reunited in New Jersey.

“I found out that one of Alaska’s governors was an orphan train rider. Eighty-seven percent of placements were considered successful. This is a wonderful part of our history, and they are among us today.”

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