'Orphan Train' riders leave mark in York
The fictional book is being read by people throughout the region, but the real life stories are even more compelling
All three were riders on the hundreds of orphan trains that would carry more than 200,000 children between 1854 and 1929 from East Coast cities to the Wild West in search of better lives.
These early forms of the American foster care system are gaining popularity thanks to the fictional story, "Orphan Train" by Christina Baker Kline. Libraries in Berks, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Perry and York counties are presenting the novel as the 2015 One Book, One Community campaign, which kicked off last month.
In addition to reading the book, libraries are hosting events centered around the real-life stories of abandoned children who rode the trains in hopes of finding families who would provide education, love and spiritual guidance.
Martin Library in York hosted author and public speaker Donna Nordmark Aviles Sunday afternoon to share some of the history of orphan trains in the United States, as well as her personal connection through her grandfather Oliver Nordmark's experience riding the train from New York City to Kansas in 1906.
Video: Hear Oliver Nordmark who rode one of the Orphan Trains
"Orphan trains were gateways to saving thousands of children from facing death, disease and poverty," Aviles said Sunday to a group of about 30 people.
In the mid-1800s, as many as 3,000 immigrants were coming every day to American through Ellis Island. They were all looking for homes, work and better lives. But huge families, some with 10 or more children, were usually found crammed into one-bedroom apartments.
By 8 years old, most children were out on the street, working to support themselves when the families no longer could, she said. The Lower East Side of the city had as many as 30,000 children living on the street during that time, Aviles said.
That trend would change when the Rev. Charles Loring Brace, a minister from Connecticut, would visit the city on business and decide to devote his life to saving the children of New York. He founded The Children's Aid Society, which provided lodging and taught children trades so they could someday support themselves.
But overcrowding would soon become too much of a challenge, Aviles said, forcing Brace to find another option. He would invent the "placing out system," where children were put on trains and sent west to find families who could care for them.
Oliver Nordmark was 6 when he and his little brother Edward were picked up and sent to an orphanage. Oliver was found playing hooky one day and authorities told him his parents were dead, Aviles said. In reality, Oliver's mother lived until he was 13.
But numerous attempts by the orphanage to reach her were in vain. She would never respond to their inquiries. A year after moving to the orphanage, the boys would board an orphan train and head to Kansas.
Advertisements had been placed in newspapers announcing the orphan train would arrive July 28, 1906. Those interested in taking in a child could head to the Opera House, where the children would be lined up on the stage and pioneers and farmers could fill out the paperwork for the child they wanted. If no one claimed you, Aviles said, you got back on the train and hoped to be chosen in the next town.
Oliver was dropped off in Bern, Kansas, where he was taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Blauer, a German couple that also spoke English.
Not wanting to give away too much of the story — she has written three books on her grandfather's experiences — she added that Oliver left Kansas at 15 to search for Edward. She wouldn't say how or when they found each other, but noted they are now buried next to each other.
At 78, Aviles' father, Benny, the youngest of Oliver's six children, recorded four hours of interviews, which Aviles used to write her books.
When he died in 1994 at 95, Oliver still carried in his pocket the companion Bible the orphanage gave him the day he left on the train. Inside, he had circled passages related to reaping what you sow, Aviles said.
"He was a fabulous, adventurous man," Aviles said of her grandfather, recalling family vacations with him. "He believed you could make your own destiny, and that if you didn't have a good start in life, you could change it."
While some people view the orphan trains as a terrible way to treat children, it saved many from death, especially those who were abandoned as babies, Aviles said. More than 85 percent of placements were considered positive, she said.
"Many children who rode the orphan trains never spoke of their old lives," Aviles said. "They wanted to fit in with their new families and be accepted. Today, we have a better understanding of how orphan trains formed this country, and saved the lives of forgotten children."