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New life for Orphan Train riders

October 30, 2013 - Life was bittersweet for children who rode the Orphan Train.

Al and Dave Eicher of Program Source International presented the story of orphan children riding the train in search of family at the Clarkston-Independence Library, Oct. 22.

Children's Aid Society (CAS) in New York, founded by Charles Loring Brace, operated the Orphan Train program, which rolled through Detroit from 1860 to 1927.

Children on the trains had been orphaned by war, poverty, alcohol abuse, and other causes in New York City.

All together, about 200,000 children were sent on the Orphan Train, hoping to avoid a life of hard labor or on the street.

After the CAS gained strong financial support the organization was able to provide more necessities to children boarding the train. Girls were sometimes given a new dress, boys received a new coat or hat. Most carried a knapsack of extra clothes and were presented a bible. CAS agents boarded the train with the children and guided them forward towards their new journey

Around 1860, the first batch of 14 boys arrived in Michigan. All together, around 12,500 children ages 3-16 were sent to 40 towns in Michigan, including Grass Lake, Dowagiac, Battle Creek, Ypsilanti, Chelsea, Dexter, Jackson, Fenton, Linden, Holly and Oxford.

"The younger the children were, the better chance they had of being picked up," said Al.

Before children reached a town, telegraphs were dispatched to let residents know they were coming. Trains stopped at city hall, churches or alongside railroad tracks. Crowds of town folk would gather, holding welcome receptions. The children would then be lined up for all to see.

They were looked over like a piece of meat in a market. "Their teeth were inspected and their bone structure examined,"Al remarked.

Many could not read, write or even speak well. Some were ill or deformed and sent back to New York. Siblings were split unwillingly. Some children found homes quickly while others were continuously passed up.

Herman D. Clark, who accompanied the children, kept a journal of his travels. Clark noted the children's sadness when they were passed up many times.

Some children looked to Clark as a father, and often pried him for information.

"Kids thought maybe Clark knew something about their real families," Al said.

Clark documented some thoughts children shared with him.

"I wonder if they think of me," one child said of the family she lost. "Should I be ashamed of my family," another questioned.

One child wondered of her future family, "Will they like me."

When they were picked by a family their new life began.

"Imagine what they saw on that journey. Many of the children were hopeful to find a good life. On their journey they passed many farms, and some boys thought life on the farm might be alright," said Al.

No Child labor laws existed in the beginning of the trains journeys, so children often went to their new homes and slaved in places like fields, farms and factories.

"Older children sometimes went off to battle," said Al. "Some boys became hard farm laborers and girls became servants."

Besides some young met went to work deep in coal mines. Photographs depict boys who had obviously been hard at work in the mines dusty and withered for their young age.

Some were lucky, and some were unfortunate where they ended up. One success story is that of a young man that ended up in Oxford.

Oxford and the Orphan Train

Oxford was one of the towns that received children from the train. Oxford resident, Dr. Bachelor, received a boy age 13 from the Orphan Train. He picked the boy up in the small town of Oakwood northwest of Oxford. The boy went to school in Oxford and was a smart student.

After graduating in Oxford, the boy followed in his adoptive father's footsteps and became a doctor. The boy named JW Pringle took the first initials of his adoptive father J.W Bachelor.

Pringle attended Detroit College of Medicine and became a medical surgeon and doctor. Pringle practiced medicine in Oxford village for over 43 years and retired just a few week's before he died in 1938.

From 1854 to 1927. After 1927 the Orphan Train headed west.

Not all journeys are pleasant

Clark received letters from a girl troubled with her new life. Clark attempted to retrieve the girl, but town folk were close nit with their neighbors and often the local sheriff, so trying to get that girl back was a tough feat.

The family found out from the sheriff the girl wanted to leave. "She embarrassed them," said Al. "And the sheriff brought her back after she ran away. Their solution to making the girl stay was to have one of two teen sons get her pregnant.

At one point the CAS said children were to complete a yearly report about their new life. That never happened.

A young man at the Orphan Train presentation said he came to realize that some of the people who adopted the orphans were mean.

"It's very interesting," said Dorothy Warell who read the book with her book club in Waterford. Warell's friend Ruth Mcculloch said she had no idea that the Orphan Train was so near to her hometown of Hadley. Now she wonders if a young man who worked for her grandmother could have possibly come from the Orphan Train.

"To be shipped off from everything you know and be so alone must have been hard," said presentation attendee Linda Jones.

Some data, only about boys, was collected in regards to what happened to riders of the Orphan Train: 80 percent of the children who rode the train were placed; 61 percent of the children placed were boys; 62 percent of the children were American, 18 percent were Irish, and 8 percent were German; and African-American children were sent west to Mississippi.

Many became farmers, pastors, joined the army, sold goods or became doctors. Some became lawyers, lawmen or teachers.

Staff writer
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