My Great Grandmother, the Orphan Train Rider
Every family has its fair share of stories.
Some are factual and others are warped by years of embellishment. Some are full to the brim with fond, funny memories, and others are quite poignant.
I’d like to tell you a story that has been important to my family’s history. It’s the tale of my maternal great grandmother, Josephine Hojnacki, born Josephine Keegan, who, once upon a time, as a little girl, was an Orphan Train rider.
Josephine’s parents were Irish, and had immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800’s. Like so many other immigrants, they chose New York City as their new home. Unfortunately, port cities such as New York received in excess of 4 million immigrants over a 20-year period, making housing and job opportunities scarce. After much travail, my great grandmother’s parents were forced to admit that the city had proven too much for them. They were destitute, and realized that they couldn’t take care of their infant daughter, so, with promises to return one day to reclaim her daughter, her mother left her baby girl at an over-crowded orphanage where she was, no doubt, minimally cared for, and most likely, unloved.
She grew up understanding the meaning of a hard knock life first hand.
She wasn’t alone in her plight. Far from it, actually. Due to excessive immigration and extreme poverty, tens of thousands of children lived on the streets of Manhattan, and were driven to lives of crime just to stay alive. Tragically, according to one Orphan Train historian, “children were often jailed at the age of 5 or publicly hanged at the age of 12, and expected to move out on their own by 14.”1
Eventually, a Methodist minister, Charles Loring Brace, who lived in New York, thought up a way to rid the city of its “street urchins” and give them a taste of:
firm but compassionate childrearing – not to mention Midwestern Christian family values – the only way to save these children from a life of depravity and poverty.2
Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society, which, in many cases, came to be recognized as a gross misnomer.
For 75 years, from 1854 to 1929, the Children’s Aid Society herded more than 200,000 children from over-taxed orphanages and the streets of New York and other east coast cities onto Orphan Trains, and shipped them across the country in the hopes of finding these abandoned children new homes. There was little to no consideration given to sibling groups. More often than not, actually, siblings never saw each other again after stepping foot on an Orphan Train. Infants travelled in coach cars with caregivers, while older children were often piled into uncomfortable box cars, and off they went on their separate ways with whomever selected them.
The trains typically began their journey in New York or Boston, and headed west. Flyers announcing the arrival date of the Orphan Train went out to local residents shortly before its appearance.
Once at a designated stop, the children would disembark, line up on the station platform, and be poked and prodded and inspected like so many cattle for sale at the fair: their scalps checked for bugs, their biceps squeezed, and their temperaments truly tested.
In the words of one Orphan Train Rider,
We were lined up on the stage and all I could see was wall-to-wall people. They surrounded us, made us turn around, lift our skirts to see if our legs were straight, and open our mouths to show our teeth. A very humiliating day. -Hazelle Latimer, Orphan train rider.
My great grandmother was seven years old when she boarded an Orphan Train. By her own admission, she was not a particularly good-looking girl. As a matter of fact, her crossed-eyes, weak chin, and long, thin nose, rendered her unattractive to prospective parents, most of whom were looking for strong young boys to help with heavy labor, but might have agreed to take on a pretty, infant or toddler girl who they could dress up nicely and show off to their friends and family as their latest acquisition.
Josephine simply did not suit.
Finally, after many unsuccessful stops between New York and Illinois, and fearing she was nearing the end of the line, she pleaded with a mother and daughter on a station platform in Chicago, to take her in, clinging to the woman’s skirt as she walked away down the tracks, and finally wrapping her arms around the woman’s knees.
Although lukewarm about the whole notion, the woman agreed to adopt Josephine since she and her husband needed someone young to help with the household chores considering their children were grown up and had moved away. She and her husband were immigrants themselves, but from Poland, and had managed to create a financially secure and comfortable life for their family.
While far from ideal, my great grandmother’s life with her new parents was actually considerably better than the lives of many Orphan Train riders who found themselves neglected, living in squalor, worked to the bone without pay, beaten, or molested. Although she felt resentment from the two older children in the family, over time, Josephine came to love and be loved by her new parents. They sent her to school (two years for each grade so that she could “use up” the books they bought her) through 8th grade, and even provided piano lessons for her since she was quite musical, a luxury to be sure. However, they never formalized her adoption, so upon their passing, her parents’ biological children made sure she didn’t get a dime of their inheritance.
Years later, after marrying and raising three children, she went to a questionable clinic to have her crossed eyes fixed. Sadly, the surgery went awry, and she became permanently blind.
I only vaguely remember her: a gentle stroke of a young girl’s hair, a soft patting of the hand, and always a far-away smile.
Here’s a map showing where the Orphan Train riders were placed throughout the country. The midwest, particularly Illinois, assumed many of the traveling children.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall ever having learned about these trains when I was in school. Not a single word was spoken about them. I only knew of their existence because of my family’s personal experience with them. It could be that the U.S. was embarrassed by how it had treated children within its own borders, or it could be that children back then didn’t truly count, especially relative to the child-centric society we live in today. At the turn of the 20th century, if kids had to be shipped miles across the country, and then had to work almost as if they were indentured servants, the sentiment most probably would have been, so be it. At least they were out of the east coast cities, off of the streets, and living God-fearing lives. After all, children were expected to be seen, not heard. They were basically viewed as property.
What a complete about-face we’ve done since then. Nowadays, kids often call the shots, many are pampered and spoiled, and some are completely lacking in manners and moral character. Many of our children these days, I fear, would perish quite quickly from the extreme hardships our ancestors faced on a daily basis. It would seem that there has to be a middle ground that can and should be found.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Orphan Trains, there are several good books on the subject. “Orphan Train” , by Christina Baker Kline, is a captivating fictionalized story based loosely on the experiences of those who rode the trains as young children from the East many, many years ago. There is also a wonderful children’s book that explains this forgotten piece of our country’s history in terms that kids can understand. Its title is, “Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story,” and was written by Andrea Warren.
Or, if you’re interested in reading individual rider’s tales, click here: Tales
Why do you think we never learned about the Orphan Trains in school? Or, perhaps do you remember being taught about them while my mind was somewhere up in the clouds? It’s certainly not a possibility I’d rule out.
1.“The Orphan Train Movement”
2. Christina Baker Kline, author of “Orphan Train”