What was your first thought when you read the subject line? If you’re like I am, with a love for machinery, you may have thought this would be about one-of-a-kind railcars, or engines/trackage/infrastructure abandoned and left “as is” many years ago, or …
You’d be wrong.
My wife and I took a road trip recently from AZ to IL, IN, NE, and TX, covering just over 4,200 miles in two weeks. While driving south on US Route 81 from I-80 in Nebraska to I-135 in Kansas, we found a town called Concordia, KS. In that town, we found a marker for the Orphan Train Museum. Since it was lunchtime, and since I love trains, we decided to go take a look at the place.
I was quite surprised to see some empty tracks next to the Museum, instead of seeing rare and unique railcars or engines. Upon entering, however, I realized why: The Museum isn’t about *trains*; it’s about the orphans who *rode* the trains – somewhere around 250,000 of them between 1854 and 1929!
The Museum covers the stories not only of the orphans, who were either from orphanages or were living on the streets of New York City, but also of the Agents who shepherded them to all 48 Continental states (some before they achieved statehood) and several foreign countries, as well as the stories of the communities where the orphans were placed.
It’s a heart-wrenching episode in the nation’s history – all these kids whose parents either died or abandoned them, having no prospects at all of a good life (and not too much chance of surviving to adulthood, even!), being moved (sometimes) thousands of miles away from the only life they’d ever known, and resettled in small communities. They weren’t allowed to take much, if anything, from their former lives. Sometimes the placements didn’t work out, and the Agents would come get the kids and find another home for them.
These two photos show a representative railcar from that era. The car itself has its own history, but it has been refurbished to look like cars the orphans might have ridden from NYC to their new lives.
If you ever get to Concordia, KS, I recommend you take some time to go through this little museum. They’re still gathering information about (and from) the children, and many books have been published about them – including a six-volume series of stories in the children’s own words!