Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Meeting Reunites Orphan Train Riders Program Boosted Western Migration

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Meeting Reunites Orphan Train Riders Program Boosted Western Migration

Article excerpt

LAKEWOOD, Colo. -- It is one of the least-remembered of America's migrations to the West: as many as 350,000 orphan children shipped out of New York on "Orphan Trains" from the 1850s to 1929.

The trains stopped in rural areas so that prospective parents could look over the youngsters and decide whether to take in any of them.

The process wasn't always successful, recalled Dorothy Sharpley, 81, one of six Orphan Train "riders" who attended a reunion yesterday in Colorado. Sharpley said she was rejected by her first adoptive family, in Columbus, Neb.

"I was sent back to New York only to ride the train again and end up in St. Mary's, Neb., only 20 miles from Columbus."

The trains were the idea of Methodist minister Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children's Aid Society of New York, intended as a means of moving children out of the alleys and squalor of a city overrun by immigrants and the industrial revolution, out to the West and wholesome farm family life.

"It was a major event in migration to the West, where life revolved around the railroad," said Tom Noel, a University of Colorado historian.

For Sharpley, life before the Orphan Train meant having to beg for food in an orphanage with 600 children.

Janet Liebl, author of Ties That Bind, the Orphan Train Story in Minnesota, said her research indicates the number of orphans who rode the trains is about the same as the number of slaves brought into the United States.

"We don't hear about these people because they were assimilated," said Liebl.

Less than 1,000 of the "riders" are estimated to be still alive.

The Orphan Train was a sweet second chance for many, a Dickensian nightmare for others.

"We'd stop in these little towns and get out of the trains, and they'd interview us. It was kind of like a cattle auction. If they liked us they'd take us," said Stanley Cornell, who joined Sharpley at yesterday's reunion.

Cornell, then 6, rode the train twice with his brother, Victor, who was 5. …

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