Orphan Train returns

Published 12:42 am Friday, September 3, 2004

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
The Orphan Train, which first stopped in Dowagiac 150 years ago, separated Al Eicher's grandmother from her sister and baby brother.
The television producer from Bloomfield Hills kicked off The Museum at Southwestern Michigan College's fall lecture series Wednesday evening and a series of Labor Day weekend activities commemorating that 1854 arrival.
Michigan Central's Detroit-Chicago line was completed just two years previously.
Fourteen children were offered to families in Dowagiac. "It is reasonable to assume that approximately 80 percent of the 200,000 children placed out from the northeastern cities of Boston and New York were from the New York Children's Aid Society," Eicher said.
His grandmother and her sister were placed with families blocks apart and part of the same church in the late 1890s, but it would be more than 46 years before the girls were reunited with John, 3, who left town with a third family three weeks later for southern Ohio. He never slept on a bed, only on pine boughs.
The site of Dowagiac's first real store when Ezekial S. Smith and Matthew Garvey brought dry goods from Cassopolis in March 1848, Jacob Beeson sold Smith lots 172 and 173 for $1 each to spur retail development.
Smith outgrew this building, which became a saloon, the Railroad House operated by Issac and Julia Bull, former Silver Creek residents.
Bull sold the property to Patrick Hamilton in 1853. Hamilton resold the building and the south half of the lot to John T. Foster. Hamilton sold the vacant north half to C.B. Foster and his son, John T., who made boots and shoes.
About 1900, the old building, still a shoe store, was moved to Indian Lake for use as a barn. George W. Moore, brought to Dowagiac aboard an Orphan Train, built a brick building for his grocery store where J&R Sports is today.
Eicher and his son, David, wrote the Orphan Train story Michigan History magazine published in February 2003 and illustrated with a photo of the Moore brothers' grocery.
Local historians Grif and Barb Cook will be speaking on life in 1854 Dowagiac at 1 p.m. today at SMC.
Eichers' main business is producing documentaries on towns' 150th anniversaries. "We've done 19 towns in Michigan since 1994," including Bad Axe, Lapeer, Oxford and Sebewaing, he said.
They began with an obituary in Oxford for an Orphan Train rider born in 1875 who became the town doctor and a World War I surgeon. "He was a fortunate one," Eicher said. "Many were never adopted."
In the 1850s, through the Civil War era and the 1870s, no laws prohibited child factory labor. School did not become compulsory until 1883.
In 1826 New York City had but four orphanages. The number of asylums grew to 60 after the Civil War. New York's population dropped by 70,000 people after the war, not because that many soldiers died, but widows picking up the pieces shifted around and started new lives.
In the 1880s, tenements were blamed for 40 percent of all childhood deaths. Approximately 10,000 youngsters roamed the streets of New York in 1850. Three thousand survived by stealing. In Boston that year, 500 boys ages 7-18 shared jail space with adults.
Men toiled long hours at dangerous foundry jobs or on the waterfront, loading and unloading cargo. Immigrants were hampered because they couldn't read or write or speak English. Serious illnesses felled breadwinners, leaving surviving family members scrambling to surmount challenges. A man might be faced with farming out his children to relatives or the church. Wives had fewer options. Unemployable in male-oriented workplaces, they could eke out low pay as domestics or resort to prostitution to feed their children.
Hordes of desperate children begging and stealing food and merchandise from stores plagued New York in the 1850s.
Young delinquents were branded "street urchins."
Around 1853, a Congregationalist minister, Charles Loring Brace, decided that rather than preach, he could better serve the city's poor and homeless with a ministry that became the New York Children's Aid Society and removed children from the streets to food, shelter and a loving, caring environment with educational opportunities.
Brace was also intent on placing youngsters outside of the city in small towns and on farms "where air was fresh and they could enjoy life in the countryside with a Christian family." Brace's family was friends with the Theodore Roosevelts.
Eicher said their research has identified 140 children placed in Michigan. Mary Ellen Johnson, who led the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America from Springdale, Ark., encouraged the Eichers.
Boys were given a new suit of clothes and high-buttoned shoes. Girls, bound for Kansas in 1910 were garbed in new dresses, coats and fashionable hats or bonnets for their photographs.
Children left New York with another change of clothes for traveling.
The Children's Aid Society set up a network of clergy and citizens to promote homeless children's availability. Some were infants, but most were ages 3-16.
When enough interest had been generated, boys and girls were given some provisions and put on a westward train. For a period of time, some orphans boarded steamships at Buffalo, N.Y., and traveled to Ohio ports along Lake Erie and Monroe, Mich.
Orphans were placed in the Detroit area as early as 1860. Going west from Detroit in August 1857, a party of 24 orphans was placed in Ypsilanti and at Grass Lake, near Jackson. Other riders arrived at the Ann Arbor depot.
Chelsea received "little wanderers" in the 1870s and 1880s. Jackson was the next stop for the "baby train," as it was also known.
In July 1857, 31 orphans arrived in Albion. Marshall was the next stop, but the number placed there has been lost. Battle Creek had a reception for 56 orphans in the first week of August, 1857. A group of them continued on to Olivet. Kalamazoo took 30 children in May 1857.
Trains traveled to Pontiac, Tecumseh, Flint, Bay City, Midland and Grand Rapids - 44 towns and cities as far north as the Upper Peninsula.
Riders were not permitted in a train's plush parlor car. They slept on the floor or in freight cars fitted with wooden benches. The children were given bread and fruit for the trip, with stops for milk and water.
Eicher's granddaughters give voice to some of the tiny travelers' trepidations in their 2002 video: "I hope my relatives will write to me when I get settled."
Some children traveled a week or more, from town to town, hoping to be placed. They would be displayed on the depot platform, with potential parents looking them over, examining their teeth and poking arms and legs to determine muscle mass and bone structure for possible physical labor. Interested couples also checked eye color and hair. "I wonder if my new parents will like me. I've lived in two other homes, but it didn't work out." The younger you were, the better your chance for selection.
Civil War manpower shortages, with 600,000 casualties, reopened child labor in factories. Approximately 1,000 orphans served in the Union army during the four-year war.