Orphan Train Rider

Orphan Train Rider
Oliver Nordmark - Age 15 - Esbon KS

Saturday, June 26, 2010


After a successful two week book tour to Kansas and taking time to honor the memory of my Uncle Jim, it’s time to get back to the original intent of this Orphan Train History Blog.

I am so appreciative of your patience, blog followers, but I am now Back On Track and ready to pick up the story where I left off……way back on March 6th believe it or not!!!


Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon of the Sisters of Charity opened the New York Foundling Hospital on October 11, 1869 which was, appropriately, the Feast of the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The sisters had intended to take three months to get the hospital ready to shelter the many abandoned infants that previously had been left on church doorsteps, in ash barrels, on trash heaps and other out-of-the-way places. But on their first night in the building, located at 17 East 12th Street, an infant was left on the steps and the Foundling Hospital was officially OPEN. By January 1, 1870, the original date that the sisters had planned to open their doors, 123 babies were already in residence.

By 1876 the Founding home had relocated to larger quarters; first to 3 North Washington Square, and then, in 1873, to 175 East 68th Street. With an unprecedented number of infants and small children coming under their care, the sisters came to realize that additional solutions were necessary to provide homes for so many children.

Following in the steps of Reverend Brace and the Children’s Aid Society, the Sisters of Charity sent their first train west in 1876. The disbursement of the children through the NY Foundling trains, known as Baby Trains or Mercy Trains, was run differently than the Orphan Trains. Since theirs was a Catholic institution, the nuns were especially concerned that the babies be placed in Catholic homes and raised in the Catholic faith. Instead of sending notices to local newspapers, therefore, the sisters sent letters to the priests of the Catholic parishes in the towns along the railroad. These letters expressed the need for families in rural areas to open their homes to one of the many abandoned babies living in the Founding Home. Priests would read the letter to the congregation during Mass and interested families could then complete a form requesting exactly the type of child that they would like. If a family had three sons, for example, and wanted a daughter, they might ask for a “two year old girl with blonde curly hair and green eyes,” or whatever they thought would be a good fit in their family. The requests would then be sent back to the Foundling Home where the sisters would considerately look over each child (there were thousands at any given time) to carefully select a child that would be a perfect match for the waiting family.

Chosen children would then be “tagged”, that is to say, their name and the receiving family’s name would be sewn into the hem of their dress, and a notice would be sent to the family informing them of the date and time to expect the train’s arrival with their new child.

Once the child had been received, the family was required to complete a “Receipt of Child” form which acknowledged receipt of the orphan as well as promising the Sisters of Charity that the child would be raised in the Catholic faith, sent to school, and given all the advantages of a naturally born child.

Interestingly, many of the babies who rode the Baby Trains were actually adopted by the receiving families whereas many of the children who rode the Orphan Trains were not adopted but lived, rather, in a foster care arrangement until they became of age to go out on their own. Why would this be the case? Imagine you have completed your request form for a baby from the NY Foundling Home and your Parish priest has mailed it off to NY for the selection to take place. What do you suppose you would be doing on your farm between that time and the time the child arrived? Getting ready, of course. You would no doubt be sewing clothes, knitting blankets, having your husband build a crib or bed for the child…all sorts of things. You were probably already “bragging” about your new little daughter to neighbors, friends and fellow parishioners. By the time the child arrived on the train, you were surely all ready to welcome her into your home and your heart. She was already yours! Once in your home, you would naturally want to protect this new relationship with legal status since children could be removed by the sending agencies for any number of reasons.

Families taking children from the Children’s Aid Society Orphan Trains, however, were not anticipating and preparing for a specific child. They were, instead, more likely coming into town to see the New York orphans, consider the options, and perhaps bring a child home to help with the labors of farm life. They may have gone into town thinking that they would be bringing home a boy to help work the fields only to find that most of the children that day were girls. A fourteen-year-old girl to help with the housework might end up joining the family instead.

My friend, and fellow author, Renee Wendinger is the daughter of an orphan train rider. Sophia Kaminsky (pictured above at age 4) was relinquished to the NY Foundling Home at 5 ½ months of age and traveled on one of the Baby Trains in June of 1917 to Minnesota when she was just two years old. You can read more about Sophia as well as the orphan trains in Renee’s book, Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York which is available through her website at http://www.theorphantrain.com/.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In Memory of James B. Nordmark

Yesterday I received the sad news that my uncle, James Bruce Nordmark passed away on Memorial Day, May 31, 2010. Jim was born the fifth child of Oliver and Estella Nordmark on October 12, 1926. He, along with my father, was the driving force behind my third book, PEANUT BUTTER FOR CUPCAKES: A True Story From the Great Depression. He graciously took the time to sit down with a tape recorder and tell me all the stories of his childhood...the good, the bad, and the very funny!

Jim served his country as a young man of 16, having changed the date on his birth certificate so that he could sign up. Before his 17th birthday, he was on a ship headed to the Mediterranean Sea.

He married Muriel Jones with whom he celebrated 64 years of marriage. Together they raised four children, Steve, Debbie, Joann and Jimmy.

I have so many memories of Uncle Jim.... Vacationing at his home every summer, waterskiing and camping at Pardee's Beach in the Poconos, traveling to Colorado with his family and mine, working with him on my book.....he was without question, my favorite uncle. In fact, my son James is named for him.

Life is complicated, and time and circumstances can overshadow what truly matters. Jim's life began under difficult conditions and he weathered many hardships and challenges over the course of his 83 years. He would often remark, after telling a particularly hard story, "But... I got through that."
It was part of his outlook on life, I would say. Do what you have to do to get through the tough times. Relish the good times.
Jim Nordmark was a kind man who loved his family and spoke with pride of their accomplishments. I am blessed to have had him in my family and in my life. I think that I can speak for our entire family when I say that I will miss him, and always remember him with a smile. I love you Uncle Jim.