Some museums are fun, some are educational. The National Orphan Train Complex was, for me, fun, educational and totally captivating. I didn’t want to leave. I will go back to Concordia and take however long it takes to see every display, every statue and read every line of every sign.
It’s been hard to keep photos of those lonely children hauled westward out of my mind. The Complex honors the nearly 250,000 orphaned children taken by train from eastern cities to new homes from 1854-1929. Thousands came to the Midwest, including Kansas, to be raised, and hopefully loved. Many were surely terrified to leave one home and family in search of another. It was a time when parents, like a widowed mother, feared their children might starve under their care. Many riding the rails were from immigrant homes and didn’t speak English and there were homeless children who had been scrounging for food, shelter and often victimized. To them any home, with dependable food and clothing, had to seem an early entrance into Heaven.
The Complex is bathed in photos from the era. There are shots children in squalor in New York or Boston and of them on train platforms near their new homes. A restored train car that carried hundreds of orphans can be accessed at the complex as well.
Some things that really stuck with me –
- The Children’s Aid Society, founded by a pastor, was the first far-reaching social program for children in the nation. It was 100-percent privately funded because at the time no government agency had a budget or program to look out for children.
- Some of America’s richest families – the Roosevelts, Vanderbilts and others gave heavily to the program.
- In a time when children were largely seen as a force of labor, even by many families, Orphan Train organizers tried to keep the project from being an indentured servant program. Hopeful homes had to agree to provide a variety of things like education, medical care and equal treatment as per birth children in the home. As heirs, they were to get equal parts of a family estate.
- Children’s Aid Society staff members checked on homes, sometimes several times a year. If deemed necessary, children were re-homed. A wide variety of races and religions were included. The program tried to find such orphans homes with people of the same faith and race. Siblings often couldn’t be put into the same home, but the Children’s Aid Society tried to keep them in the same community so they wouldn’t totally lose contact.
But the best part was reading the memories riders of orphan trains wrote later in their lives. Signs hang by enlarged photos all around the complex. Better, were the ones by life-sized sculptures of the children as they looked at the time. A few are at the complex. Most of the 31 statues, and their stories, are scattered around Concordia. Maps are provided for those who want to make a leisurely walk of taking in all of the statues. I’ll probably end up running from one to the other, though. I find each story that special.