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/.


Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Donna--I'm glad to see you are back. Again, sorry about your loss.

I just finished the last of your three books. They are wonderful! Are you working on a new project?

Donna said...

Thank you so much Sharon....for your condolences and for your kind words about my books. I am so glad you enjoyed them - they were a labor of love and are very close to my heart....Which is probably why it's taken me so long to begin work on a new project - thanks for asking! As of this morning....a new book is underway. Another topic that is wound around my heart (do I see a pattern here-lol!) More on the topic after I've completed the first chapter so that I can see where the story is leading me!
Enjoy your day and THANKS again for your comments and for being a valued follower of my blog :)


Dianne K. Salerni said...

Wow -- fascinating! I remember you mentioning the Baby Trains in an earlier post, and I've been waiting for the follow up! I should have realized the "Catholic" angle was the key to why the babies were adopted and the orphans weren't.

Glad to hear you've started a new project! Me too! Can't wait to hear about yours! Isn't exciting to start out and not know exactly where you're headed?!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Donna--I'm so glad to hear you have started on a new project. We are at the lake...My hubby is reading Peanut Butter for Cupcakes. (I left the others at home. I didn't know he would need something to read. He's enjoying it too.)

My mg hf is coming along. I'm on chapter 8 and I haven't gotten to the actual adventure part of the story yet...

Yaya' s Home said...

Thank you, Donna, for continuing to share your knowledge about the orphans. I never can get enough. I'm looking forward to learning even more. Thanks, again.

~ Yaya
Yaya's Home

Jill said...

These comments are now 7 years old. I hope I'm not too late to learn about these trains. My mother was told that she was adopted when she was about 40 by my grandpa who was on his deathbed. She was shocked. She said nothing to me, my dad or my brother at that time. I guess she wanted to learn who she really was. She was born in 1911 or 1912 in New York, but adopted as an infant in Omaha Nebraska. I have no idea how she got there. Her birth mother was Jewish we learned, and her adopted parents belonged to the Presbyterian church. She was one of the lucky ones...she was raised an only child by an older mother who had 2 or 3 grown children, and her 2nd husband who had no children of his own. So we know that she wasn't old enough to work on someone's farm, and she wasn't Catholis by her birth mother or her adopted mother and father. My mom spent 10 years researching her history, but she didn't share it with anyone but my Dad. She died at age 60, and he wouldn't discuss it with me. I'm assuming he destroyed all the papers she collected and kept in a binder. I can't find it anywhere, but I do remember seeing it once a long time ago. I recall the name New York Foundling Home, and her mother's surname which was Lipshitz if I remember it right. I am now 75 years old and feel desperate to learn more about my mother and our heritage. If you have any suggestions, I would welcome them. Thank you, Jill Sherman

Yaya' s Home said...

Hi Jill,
I hope you get this message. If you will send me an email to yayashome at hotmail dot com, I might be able to point you to someone who can help you. No promises, but he sure helped me a lot with tracing MY family, recently.
~ Yaya