When David Templeton read that the Pulse Opera House in Warren was planning to perform a play called “The Orphan Train,” he was intrigued.
Both of the Huntington man’s parents had been orphans, and he wondered what the play might be about. “I’d never heard of the orphan train,” the retired manufacturing executive says.
His curiosity set him off on a search to uncover a story few people know – one with many connections to Indiana’s 19th-century railroad towns including Wabash, Huntington and Fort Wayne.
Beginning in the 1850s, Templeton explains, orphans and destitute street children from a New York City swelling with immigrants were gathered up by reform-minded authorities and put on trains headed west. The hope was to place the children with farm families who needed their labor and would treat them as their own. By the time the practice ended in the 1930s, as many as 200,000 boys and girls had been relocated, from New York, Boston and other Eastern cities.
“The largest number came to Indiana,” says Templeton, 69. “Apparently, the railroad that runs from Fort Wayne and comes to Huntington and Wabash was a main line for bringing the kids west.”
Ron Woodward, Wabash County historian, has found specifics on what happened to some of the orphans after they arrived.
Trains made three stops in Wabash in 1857, 1858 and 1859, he says. On the third stop, the Wabash Weekly Gazette reported, “another lot” of 48 boys from 7 to 18, accompanied by an agent from their sponsor, New York’s Children’s Aid Society, were put up at the Center House hotel overnight. The next morning, they were taken to “the courtroom where persons were given an opportunity of making selections.”
“Basically, they inspected them, and if they liked the kid, they could take them,” Woodward says. There might be a rudimentary agreement, but often, “There was nothing really legal,” he says. “If you paid his passage, you went home with him.”
In the 1859 case, the newspaper writer noted, only three or four children, whose presence had been advertised the week before, were taken. But the next day, all but three had been selected.
“The children were in fine spirits and appeared to enjoy themselves hugely. They romped and played as so many school boys who enjoy all the privileges of wealth and luxury,” the writer noted.
But being selected was no guarantee to happiness. Some likely never saw siblings again.
“Some of them found a good home where people would give them an education and teach them morals and maybe a trade before they (grew up and) left, others just used them as manual labor and gave them nothing,” Woodward says.
Richard Copeland, an expert on Cass County history, says trains also dropped off children in Logansport. One rider, Julia Laing of Logansport, died last year after living to be more than 100, he says. But little is known about her experience or that of the others.
“It’s not one of those things that people talk about. Not that it was shameful, but honestly, it was something people kept kind of quiet,” he says.
Thomas Castaldi, an amateur Fort Wayne canal and railroad historian, says if any children came to Fort Wayne, they likely would have been dropped off at a station on South Calhoun Street known as the place Abraham Lincoln once changed trains. But perhaps few got off because it was not a rural area.
“It seems as if it’s not well researched, and it’s important that we uncover more of the story to uncover more of our heritage,” he says.
Templeton, who took a small role in the Opera House production, says his research led him to a great-granddaughter of one rider, Thomas Burns, who came from New York to live with a family in Huntington.
Burns became a teacher and died in 1920, according to his descendant, who now lives in Kansas. Another source says Burns’ parents were born in Ireland at a time when many were trying to escape its potato famine.
Templeton acknowledges it’s not a stretch to compare the orphans to American Indians who were dispersed west on the Trail of Tears or enslaved blacks, whose families were divided in sales.
“The first thing you have to wonder is if they were treated OK,” he says. “Some were not, because they ran away. But the vast majority turned out OK.
“Many of them fought in the Civil War, and after the war became farmers or worked in factories, and a number of them grew up to be doctors, lawyers, government servants, teachers, all professions. They came to lead very successful lives.”
Woodward says that, before a reporter’s call last week, no one had ever asked him about the local connections to the orphan trains – even though more than 2,800 orphans are estimated to have come to Indiana and 2 million people may be descended from all orphans put on trains. In 1996, one expert estimated that 500 riders were still alive, he says.
But they and their stories are “going fast,” says Templeton, who has found about 10 with Huntington or Lagro connections.
“My mother was an orphan, and my father was abandoned as a child and was adopted out of an orphanage in North Carolina into New York City. My mother was in an orphanage in Virginia up into her teenage years, but her older brother got into the Navy, and when he got out, he took her into his home and that’s where she grew up,” Templeton says.
“I can get pretty emotional about the stories (of the orphan train children). It hurts deep inside.”