Thursday, August 20, 2009

Another American Story

14 days and 3,284 miles.
Not much of a journey for a world traveler wannabe, but it was a bit of a jaunt, as we drove from Galva to North Carolina to help my younger son and family move further down the coast as he starts a new high school teaching/coaching job. Once we had “completed” that task (has anybody ever really completed a move from one house to another in less than eight or nine years?), we headed from the beautiful beaches of coastal Carolina to another favorite spot, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my sister and her family live.
While I was happy to spend the last couple of days of summer vacation with them, there was another reason for the trip. One of my great-nieces was going to be in a play.
Right now, you might be thinking, “I know these guys like to travel, but a thousand-mile detour just to see a kids’ play?”
Well, it wasn’t just any play.
It was “The Orphan Train.”
The Orphan Train was a social experiment that transported children from crowded eastern cities to the midwest for adoption. The orphan trains ran between 1854 and 1929, relocating an estimated 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. At the time the orphan train movement began, it was estimated that 30,000 vagrant children were living on the streets of New York City.
It’s an interesting part of American lore. And for us, it’s more.
You see, my wife’s grandmother was one of those orphans who rode the train..
Born in 1891 in New York City’s Sloane Maternity Hospital, Megan’s paternal grandmother, Agnes, was, soon after, left with the Sisters of Charity at the New York Foundling Hospital by her mother, who said she would come back for her baby in a few weeks.
She never returned.
When Agnes was just under three years old, the Sisters placed her on an orphan train in hopes that she would find a new life and family.
Sent west, the children arrived in towns where local community leaders had assembled interested townspeople. They would inspect the children and after brief interviews with the ones they wanted, take them home. After a trial period, some children became no more than indentured servants to their host families, while others were adopted, formally or informally, as family members.
Agnes was one of the fortunate ones, taken in by a childless couple from Bancroft, Iowa, who lovingly raised her as their daughter.
“They adopted and raised her as their own,” said Megan’s Aunt Mary, who shared her mother’s story with me. “”How fortunate my mother was.”
The play featured vignettes taken from actual experiences recorded by orphans who rode the train. Our great-niece did a wonderful job portraying “Mary,” a young girl who underwent some cruel treatment before being adopted by a loving family.
Agnes died before my wife was born, but Megan has long known of her grandmother’s story. But it was poignant, indeed, seeing it told by those modern-day children and imagining what it was like.
“I kept thinking about her on that train,” said Megan afterwards. “What would have happened to her if she hadn’t been sent?”
And it is amazing to think of a not-quite-three-year-old child sent off on a train ride to places and people unknown.
But we do know what happened, as she grew up, married, and had two children. One was Megan’s father.
The Sisters of Charity and their organization, now known simply as The New York Foundling, still exist today. The Sisters recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of their founding by Saint Elizabeth Seton.
“Abandon No One” remains their calling and their mission.
The orphan train is now a part of American history. It’s a part of our family history, too.
And another American story.

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