Orphan Train’s first stop was Dowagiac

Published 9:13 am Thursday, September 2, 2004

By By JOY NOEL LAURENT / Cassopolis Vigilant
Homeless, but far from hopeless, 47 children sat crammed in the dark of the stifling train car dreaming of a better life.
In September of 1854, theirs was the first trip of what would become a largely-successful attempt by New York's Children's Aid Society (CAS) to place neglected and mischievous children from the streets of the New York area into homes in the country.
The orphans arrived in the "smart little town" of Dowagiac after days of tiresome travel by train and boat, according to CAS records. That night, still in good spirits from the start of their journey, they spread about the train depot, curled up on benches and sprawled across the floor.
Eager boys and girls with soiled clothing, but clean faces filed into the country church in the morning. They sang their favorite hymn, "Come, ye sinners, poor and needy" with a teary-eyed congregation and, by the service's end, several children had new homes. By Saturday, the others were placed in homes as the train traveled west to Chicago.
Labor Day weekend of 2004 will mark the 150th anniversary of this first train stop in Dowagiac. A re-enactment of the arrival is scheduled to honor the children and their descendents.
Over a period of 75 years, the Orphan Train Movement relocated more than 200,000 children across rural America, with 12,500 in Michigan.
In many cases, young boys became little more than farm laborers and girls toiled as servants; however, some placements were highly successful, with children welcomed as family members. This supportive environment led some to become attorneys, physicians, teachers and even a few governors.
Only one individual has been identified as an orphan train child adopted in Dowagiac. As a boy, George W. Moore, later a prominent area businessman, traveled from the slums of Brooklyn with his younger brother Charles on the CAS train. Like many of the orphan train children, his immigrant parents died shortly after their arrival to New York City, leaving him to wander the streets.
Moore arrived in Dowagiac in June of 1868. He was soon adopted by a farmer and later owned part of the farm. Eventually, he built and managed a successful grocery store at the corner of Front and Main Streets.
The movement that gave children like Moore a second chance at life remains a piece of American history left largely unexplored in classrooms. However, a number of individuals who rode the trains often celebrate their history and are grateful for Brace's vision. And so are their families. "I do not feel any stigma by having connections with those who were at one time orphans but feel thankful for the good that resulted from this event," wrote Alice Jeffers (who is related to a Michigan orphan train rider) in a letter to the Southwestern Michigan College Museum.
Because of the kindness of many Cass County residents, the movement continued and thousands of children were given food, clothing and fresh hope. But the children were not the only ones affected. The Orphan Train Movement left a stamp on Dowagiac of rich heritage and cultural pride.