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Tracing the trail of the orphan train

July 18, 2014
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer , Estherville News

Before there were foster homes, before there was a Department of Human Services, there was the orphan train.

Crossing the North American continent to the West and on into Canada, the orphan train carried children ages 3-9 from the coal-smoky depths of Brooklyn and the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan, to the prairies and Great Plains.

Virgil Hempstead, whose father and uncle were riders on one of the orphan trains and who were taken in by Bill Fisher of Wallingford, told the orphan train story to Estherville Rotarians Thursday.

Article Photos

This orphan seemed happy to have found a home.

Charles Loring Brace, born June 19, 1826 and died Aug. 11, 1890, was an American philanthropist who started the orphan train movement of the mid-19th century and in 1853 founded The Children's Aid Society, an organization that continues today.

Hempstead said Brace observed kids stealing apples for food. Their parents often came to America in hope of false promises of jobs and opportunity, 200,000 to 300,000 people flooding into the country each year. Tragically, one or even both parents often did not survive the ocean voyage, leaving large gangs of children fending for themselves on New York's crowded streets.

Wanting to help, Brace found kids to do farm work. In time, he located a cattle car to start hauling some of New York City's 10,000 orphaned children - out of a population then of 30,000 - to new homes in the West. Hempstead said the original car used to haul those first children is in Springfield, Ark.

Fact Box

Where the orphan train stopped in Iowa

Ackley/Iowa Falls - 1904?

Afton - Jan. 28, 1878.

Arcadia - 1888.

Ashton - 1889.

Atlantic - ?

Benton County - ?

Blairsburg - 1885?

Burlington - Oct. 17, 1898.

Carroll - Nov. 7, 1888.

Castalia - 1895.

Cedar Rapids - 1895?

Centerville - 1869?

Charles City - 1917.

Clarinda - 1922.

Clarinda - 1881?

Clarinda or Villisca - ?

Clarksville - 1895.

Clear Creek - 1877.

Clinton - 1890.

Coon Rapids - June 2, 1902.

Croydon - 1901.

Davenport - 1886?

Decorah - July 23, 1913.

Decorah - Feb. 13, 1913.

Des Moines - 1917.

Des Moines - 1878.

DeSoto - 1877.

Dows - 1892.

Dubuque - 1854.

Dubuque - 1888/1889?

Dunlap - ?

Dysart - 1894.

Eagle Grove - 1892.

Earlville - ?

Eddyville - 1888.

Emmetsburg - ?

Estherville - Oct. 23, 1914.

Farley - June 1893.

Fayette - 1912.

Fertile - July 23, 1913.

Floyd County - 1893?

Forest City - Oct. 9, 1917.

Forest Mills - 1913.

Franklin - 1913.

French Creek - 1913.

Galt - ?

Gilbertville - 1897.

Grand Junction - 1889.

Grand Junction - 1894.

Gravity - ?

Grinnell - ?

Grinnell - 1860s.

Hardy - May 1912.

Hawkeye - 1912.

Holbert - ?

Hopkinton - 1908.

Hopkinton - 1906.

Imogene - 1892?

Jefferson - 1913.

Jefferson Twp. - 1913.

Jerome, Appanoose Co. - 1888/1889?

Jessup, Independence or Wadena - ?

Jones - 1880?

Kensett - July 23, 1913.

Lansing - 1877.

Lansing - Nov. 30, 1877.

Lansing - 1913.

Lattarensville? - 1892.

Lattarensville - ??

Lawler - 1888.

Lawler/New Hampton - 1890?

Lime Springs - Jan. 13, 1899.

Linton - 1913.

Ludlow - 1913.

Maquoketa - 1919.

Marcus - 1890s.

Marengo - 1899-1900.

Marengo - 1898.

Mason City - 1871.

Mason City - 1889.

Mason City - 1913.

Nevada - 1889?

New Albin - 1877?

New Hampton - ?

New Sharon - 1904.

Northwood - July 23, 1913.

Osage - June 25, 1921.

Oskaloosa - 1898.

Parnell? - ?

Peosta - 1855.

Pleasant - 1898.

Postville - 1872.

Prescott - 1913?

Red Oak - ?

Rome - 1898.

Rossville - 1913.

Rossville - Nov. 30, 1877.

Sidney - September 1904.

Sioux City - ?

Sioux City - 1912.

Spencer - 1915-1918.

Staceyville - 1889.

Stanhope (Webster Co.) - ?

Story City - ?

Sumner - 1896.

Sumner - 1919.

Swaledale? - 1916/1917.

Traler? - 1876.

Van Buren Co. - 1897.

Village Creek - 1877.

Walker - Jan. 13, 1899.

Wallingford - 1915?

Wapsie - ?

Washington - ?

Waterloo - ?

Waukon - 1915-1920.

Waukon - 1877.

Waukon - 1913.

What Cheer - 1890.

Williams - ?

Winterset - 1873.

Woodburn - 1899.

Every major town in Iowa took orphans, including Estherville where the train stopped Oct. 23, 1914. Each child had two changes of clothes, saving one so they were presentable to their new prospective parents who checked their teeth and pinched their arms to see which were the best for farm work. A total of 250,000 orphans were located in Iowa alone, with others finding homes throughout the US and Canada.

Prospective parents would complete an application and Misses Hill and Comstock of the Children's Aid Society would visit every home before approving placement.

Unfortunately, things didn't always work out as one would hope. Some families had kids for just six to eight weeks and decided they no longer wanted them. Some would change children's last names without legally adopting them so they were left out of their inheritance.

Besides the Hempstead brothers, other orphans were adopted out to area families. One was Walter Dawson who had Dawson's Lakeside Campground, still operating in Fairmont, Minn.

Another was Guy DeLeo, legendary Minnesota big band leader. Leach Park in Spencer was named in honor of two girls adopted by a Mr. Leach who donated the land for the park.

Overall, though, the orphan train movement was a resounding success.

"It's one of the most kept secrets in communities there was," said Hempstead. "It's a good organization."

 
 
 

 

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