What to do with 30,000 “excess” kids?

Dealing with homeless children 100 years ago

In the 1800s, boatloads of immigrants arrived in U.S. port cities. They came seeking the American dream; the reality they faced was often more a nightmare.  Large families, poverty, and untimely deaths from childbirth or disease, left thousands of children on the streets. These children survived as pickpockets, beggars, or prostitutes. By the mid-1850s, it’s estimated that 30,000 children lived on New York streets.

What became of those children is a lesser-known part of American history that became known as the Orphan Train Movement.

The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) was a New York agency formed to help care for these “excess” children. Not all of the children were orphaned. Some were abandoned. Some were given over to the CAS because the parents simply couldn’t take care of them.

Orphan Train Riders

Orphan Train Riders

Workers at the CAS and another charity institution, The New York Foundling Hospital, sought better lives for the children, looking for homes with families in rural areas of the country.  The Orphan Train Movement transported children–ranging in age from infants to 16–by rail to new homes. Between 1854 and the early 1930s, the two organizations placed between 200,000 and 250,000 children in homes across 47 states and several Canadian provinces. Some 10,000 of those children came to Iowa.

I learned about the Orphan Train riders in the course of researching an article on the subject for The Iowan magazine. The topic fascinated me so much that I’ve included an Orphan Train thread in my upcoming novel Go Away Home.

By the time I was doing my research, Iowa’s Orphan Train riders had all passed away. My interviews included the children of riders, and the stories they tell are both poignant and powerful. Mary McLain is one of those I interviewed.

Mary McLain’s favorite story when she was growing up was Little Orphan Annie.  As a kindergartner, she dressed up as Annie for Halloween, wearing a dress her mother took out of a box tucked away in the back of a closet.  It would be many years–long after her mother passed away–before McLain learned the story behind that dress, before she learned how closely her mother’s life mirrored that of Little Orphan Annie.

McLain’s mother, Viola Volkert, was born in New York in 1907. When Viola was three, her mother contracted tuberculosis and was placed in a sanitarium.  Viola’s father could not care for his three daughters and one son, so he placed the girls with the CAS.

When Viola and her sisters entered that orphanage, they took the first step on a journey into this unique part of American history. Viola and her sisters rode the Orphan Train to Clear Lake, Iowa. The girls were all sent to separate homes.

In 1958, Viola handed a box to her daughter, Mary McLain, by then an adult. “She said, ‘I want you to have these; I know you’ll take good care of them,'” McLain remembers, “but I didn’t ask ‘Whose are these?'” Only after Viola died in 1977 did McLain begin to uncover her mother’s story.

McLain discovered that the three dresses in the box, plus three pair of underwear and a pair of shoes, were everything her mother owned when she came to Iowa.

Many Orphan Train riders did not talk easily about that part of their lives. Being an orphan was considered shameful. Speaking about it might be seen as disrespectful to the people who took you in. This was a generation that did not talk about private things. For some, their experience was not positive.

Bill Nelson was eight years old when he came to Iowa. His father gave Bill up to the orphanage, but kept Bill’s older brother, Arthur. Bill’s first family wanted him only for the hard work. The CAS matron who checked up on the placement removed him from that home. Ultimately, he was taken in by a woman whose children were all grown. But when the Depression hit, she could no longer afford to keep him. Bill was on his own at age fifteen.

All his life, Bill carried a picture of his brother and himself–the one connection he had to his former family. His daughter did the research to find her father’s brother, still living in New Jersey. When the brothers finally met, they were both in their 80s. Arthur carried the same picture with him.

All his life, Bill had carried the hurt of being rejected by his father. It was only after telling his story at an Orphan Train reunion, a story that he’d kept inside most of his life, that he was finally able to say with some pride, “I’m part of American history.”


The Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital continue in operation today. The National Orphan Train Complex is dedicated to saving the stories of Orphan Train riders.

Two excellent novels center on Orphan Train riders: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty and Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline. 

Walking through Iowa; reading through Europe

Goals to keep mind and body fresh.

Shoes & BookI’ve set two goals for myself this winter: one walking and one reading. In just the first few weeks of the year, I’ve found some interesting links to these goals, beyond the fact that I do them at the same time.

  • My walking goal is to traverse the diagonal distance of Iowa, from the southwest corner to the northeast. A map taped to the wall offers a ready reference for logging my miles and noting the towns I figuratively pass through as I take to the treadmill.
  • My reading goal, as I shared in another post, is to read 10 works of historical fiction in 2014 as part of the historical fiction challenge. That’s in addition to all the other books I know will pass through my hands this year.

I began my trek in Hamburg, the southwestern most town in Iowa. According to the 2010 census, Hamburg’s population was 1,187. This little town was nearly wiped off the map in 2011 when the Missouri River breached the levee protecting the area. Despite great adversity, the people and their town survived.

It’s interesting (to me at least) that Hamburg is named for Hamburg, Germany, since the book I was reading at this point was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Set in Germany, The Book Thief tells the story of a nine-year-old girl who lives near Berlin during WWII. This child and her foster parents face great adversity as they risk their lives to befriend a Jew they hide in their basement. The book explores the ability of books to feed the soul.

Since leaving Hamburg (Iowa), I’ve traversed almost 50 miles, passing through towns I’ve never heard of – Essex – and some I have heard of but never visited – Shenandoah and Red Oak.

Coincidentally, I “walked” through Shenandoah at the time Phil Everly passed away. Phil and his brother, Don, grew up in Shenandoah from early childhood through early high school. They sang with their father on local radio station KMA before going on to achieve fame as The Everly Brothers.

Walking at 3.8 miles/hour, I can read comfortably and have completed several books, including:

  • Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. My choice for our book club to read this month, this novel took me to the coast of England to search for fossils with two nineteenth century women whose discoveries upset the scientific and religious worlds of the day. I found this book noteworthy because the author had a unique way to describe characters. One “leads with her eyes,” another “leads with her hands,” another “leads with her chin.”  As soon as I read this descriptor, I realized I know people like this. I admire authors who trigger that spark of recognition in readers in an unusual way.
  • The Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline. This book about a lesser known part of American history, when some 250,000 children were taken by train from east coast cities to find homes in rural areas, drew me in because I have a thread on the Orphan Trains in my upcoming novel, Go Away Home. This is the one book I’ve read so far this year set in the United States.
  • Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse, by Jennifer Worth. The sequel to the book that is the basis for the the PBS series, this book caused me to consider the scope of creative non-fiction.  Worth was a nurse midwife in London after WWII.  Her life experience and writing are fully engaging. I do wonder, though, if it is appropriate to categorize much of this second book as memoir since several of the stories were not about things that happened to Worth or that she saw personally. Terrific stories, though, and a powerful look at a difficult time in English history.

As I continue to walk, I’ve crossed the Channel to France where I’m on a gastronomical journey with Julia Child in her memoir, My Life in France. She is making me very hungry. 

Sharing goals helps ensure I stick to them. So, I’ll share updates of my reading and walking musings from time to time. If you’d like to chime in on books you’re reading or places you’re traveling or goals you’ve set for the year, I’d love to hear from you.

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge – 2014

January 1 is a time for resolutions and I just made one I know I’ll have no trouble sticking with throughout the year.  This afternoon, I learned about the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, and since impulse serves me best in situations like this, I signed up on the spot.2014hf1 

The challenge seems particularly appropriate since I will publish my WWI-era novel Go Away Home later this spring. You’ll hear lots about that from me in other posts. For now, here’s the scoop on the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge sponsored by Historical Tapestry.

During the next 12 months, you can choose to read one of the different reading levels:

20th century reader – 2 books
Victorian reader – 5 books
Renaissance Reader – 10 booksI read across a range of genres, so this sounds like a good level of historical fiction for me.
Medieval – 15 books
Ancient History – 25 books

Prehistoric – 50+ books

The first book on my list is the one I chose for our book club to read this month: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. This is the story of the real person Mary Anning, an English girl who has a particular talent for finding fossils, and her spinster friend Elizabeth Philpot. While I’ve read other books by Chevalier, the next book on my stack is Orphan Train: A Novel by an author new to me – Christina Baker Kline.

What challenges are you taking on this year? Do you have books or authors you’re particularly interested in reading?