Archived Story

DAR hears Cook program on orphan trains

Published 9:00am Friday, March 12, 2010

Dowagiac Daily News

CASSOPOLIS – Established in 1848, Dowagiac was 6 years old in 1854, the year Round Oak Stove founder Philo D. Beckwith also arrived.

Dowagiac would become a village in 1858 and the smallest incorporated city in the United States in 1877.

Grace Greenwood wrote to the Evening Post newspaper in Philadelphia after a visit that Dowagiac’s white houses looked like eggs scattered on desert sand.

She said residents neglecting to plant shade trees in their yards or along streets meant “burning sun shone down pitilessly on the grassless ground and unprotected dwellings.”

Her letter launched a beautification campaign by inhabitants that lasted several years.

In 1859 the village removed 83 tree stumps from the rutted streets at a cost of 25 cents each.

Wolves, coyotes, black bears and snakes, including rattlers, were abundant.

The first Cass County Board of Supervisitors placed a cash bounty on wolves and coyotes, which menaced livestock.

N. Front was known as “Snake Street” in honor of its blue racer population.

Early Dowagiac was a village on a stream amidst prosperous farmland, abysmal mosquito-infested swamps and hardwood forests.

It was a trading center with bustling streets. Industrial production was just beginning.

Skilled tradesmen such as shoemakers, blacksmiths, carpenters and gunsmiths kept busy, though it did not yet have a bank.

Dowagiac gained national notoriety on Sunday, Sept. 24, 1854, when 46 youngsters – 45 from New York City and one from Maine – arrived from the East on the first “orphan train” to begin the now-famous children’s migration.

Orphan trains represented the first attempt at foster care in America.

The Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853, fostered the relocation program to give young people a chance to join a family, get an education and become independent, productive citizens.

Charles Loring Brace, the Congregationalist minister who founded the organization, wanted to remove orphans from the urban environment to rural settings on a farm or in a small village.

Brace believed a Christian home could be found for each orphan by establishing a network of clergymen and community groups along established Midwest railroads. Fliers were posted in public places. Circulars were distributed through weekly newspapers. Contacts were made prior to the youngsters’ arrival.

The first group of orphans was mostly boys and a couple of girls ranging in age between 7 and 15.

Thirty-six orphans dressed in uniforms. The others were straight from the streets and attired in ill-fitting, tattered garments.

Between 1854 and 1929, more than 250,000 “orphans” from New York City and Boston were sent “West.” Michigan families took in 12,500 of these street urchins.

“Girls died early as the result of prostitution and suicide,” local historian Barbara Cook told Capt. Samuel Felt Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) March 8 at Cass District Library.

Between 1841 and 1860, 4 million immigrants landed in America. Port cities, which also included Charleston, S.C., were overcrowded and ill-equpped to handle such an influx of people, breeding disease and crime.

Rev. E.P. Smith accompanied and supervised the children on their cross-country journey.
To reach southwestern Michigan, they traveled on a Hudson River steamer, Isaac Newton, from New York City to Albany.

From Albany to Buffalo, they traveled in a boxcar with slatted sides and backless benches.
As the children made their way through New York state they were inquisitive and full of questions and comments about corn fields, pumpkins, apples growing on trees and oxen they called “cows” plowing.

Several times the group exclaimed, “Hip! Hip! Three cheers for Michigan!”

After a six-hour layover in Buffalo, they resumed their journey by lake boat to Detroit with the stamping, neighing and bleating of a hundred horses and sheep over their heads.

On the last leg of their odyssey to Dowagiac they traveled “first class” in a Michigan Central Railroad car.

About 3 Sunday morning they arrived in Dowagiac, four days after leaving New York.
The boys spent the remainder of the night sleeping on the platform of the old “Red Depot” slightly north of the present train station.

Children awoke at dawn.

As soon as they realized they were really in Michigan, they scattered in all directions, each one for himself.

They straggled back hours later with apples, ears of corn, peaches, pumpkins and acorns, for these children were accustomed to providing for themselves.

Despite the chill in the air, some  boys swam in the Dowagiac Creek to clean up after their arduous trip.

From the railroad platform the orphans could see the undeveloped area east of the railway property, which was simply a passenger station and freight house.

The stockyards, a park and open areas that were mostly bare dirt were on the east side of Front. Retail stores were on the west side.

Most buildings were unpainted frame structures.

There were a couple of brick buildings in town and a few homes painted white, but no sidewalks, no sewers, no electric lights, no telephones and no cars.

Outhouses were prevalent, with unneeded items discarded down the holes.

Wash water and other wastewater were commonly splashed onto the street or thrown out the back door.

“Roaming livestock, as well as those being driven through town, plus the horses being ridden and used for hauling and transportation left visible and odoriferous reminders of their passage,” Cook said.

There were no screens.

Flies, mosquitos and other insects made warm months miserable.

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