Orphan Train

The story of the Orphan Train, a movement that transported poor and homeless New York City children to rural homes in the Midwest (including Iowa) between 1854 and 1929, is featured. This program aired in 2004.


Hello, I'm Morgan Halgren. Thanks for joining us for another edition of Living in Iowa.

Someone once said that if you dig deep enough anywhere you will find threads that lead directly to great happenings on the world stage. So it was when Urbandale resident, Mary McLain began to dig into her own family history and discovered a direct link to what has been called the greatest mass migration of children in the world--the Orphan Trains.

Mary, where does the story of the orphan trains begin?

Mary: It began in 1854. It was the time that a lot of immigrants were coming into our country. A young minister, Reverend Brase, was concerned about--especially about the homeless children that were on the streets of New York City. At that time there were about 30,000 homeless children.

Morgan: What were the primary destinations for the trains?

Mary: They went to every state in the union that was in the union at that time. But the greatest number of these children came to, what I call, breadbasket of America. Iowa was one of those states, and it's been estimated that Iowa took 20,000 of these children.

Morgan: And how old were the children? What was the age range?

Mary: From infants to 16 years old.

Morgan: What got you interested in this whole topic?

Mary: Because my mother was an orphan train rider. She road the train with two of her sisters. When my mother was going to move out of the state of Iowa in about 1958, she gave me these three little dresses that she had worn while she was on the train, although I did not know for sure when I took these that that was what these were. I was almost sure but it wasn't until I did a little research that I knew that, yes, they were the three little dresses.

Morgan: But she didn't say to you, "There's a piece of my history that you should know"?

Mary: No, and she didn't say anything about the orphan train. She just handed me the cardboard box and said, "I want you to have these."

Morgan: So these little dresses were really the key to your beginning your research, weren't they?

Mary: Yes, because if these hadn't been hanging in this bedroom when we had company—a cousin of my husband's inquired about them. And then he helped me get started with the research.

Morgan: And how did you definitely know that she had been on the orphan train?

Mary: Well, there was a picture in the bottom of this box. And here on the back side of the picture, in my mother's handwriting, was written that one of the women in the picture was her birth mother and another woman in the picture was her birth grandmother. And I always knew that the lady that I knew as Grandma Jargenson was my mother's adopted mother. I knew she'd ridden a train from New York City. I knew she was born in New York. And I knew she had sisters, but that was all I knew. I also knew that after my mother had rode the train, she never saw any of her family again. The Jargensons, Annie and Andrew Jargenson, who lived on a farm outside of Clear Lake, took my mother. And they had her for about a year when they legally adopted her.

Morgan: Help us understand why a person would keep that story—they had no control over their lives. Why would they keep that story private and secret?

Mary: You have to think about the time in history that this was, because that was a time when family secrets were family secrets. And things were not discussed outside of the home. The other thing was that it was a stigma to be an orphan. And it was even worse to be an orphan train rider orphan.

Morgan: And what kind of life did she have with this adoptive family?

Mary: Well, she told me as I grew up. But this was not discussed at any length. There was just little bits of things that she would tell once in a while. And of course, this added to my information too. She said that they took her for the work she could do. And my biggest, biggest regret is that my mother did not live long enough to even know what happened to some of the other riders, including her two sisters, because the two…her two sisters were just shunted from one family to another. One sister was two years in one home, and that was the longest either one of them were in one place.

Morgan: And is that the way it went—some people had good experiences and some just terrible?

Mary: Yes, that's right. Some of the children were just simply taken for the work they could do. And some of the children were beaten. A lot of the boys ran away simply because they could not take the treatment that they were receiving. And yet, Morgan, when you talk to some of the riders now, some of the men, they will tell you that even despite the hardships that they went through that they had a better life than what they would have had if they had stayed in New York.

Morgan: When did you begin interviewing people who had been orphan train riders?

Mary: When we would go to these national reunions. And then about 11 years ago, Dick and I started the Iowa Orphan Train Reunion, which we've held nearly since then. And we've met some riders that have come to that, that had never come to a national organization. And we got to hear their stories too.

Morgan: Tell us briefly a couple of the most poignant stories that come to mind.

Mary: Well, Lee Neiling is one that I always tell. He was 8 and a half and had a brother that was 6 and a half. And the father came to the Children's Aid Society the day before the children were to ride the train. And he gave…the reason he came was he was bringing the boys' 2 and a half-year-old brother to ride the train with the boys. And when they got to the first stop, his little brother was one of the first children chosen. And Lee, who passed away two years ago, told me at that time that… He said, “I can still hear in my mind the voice of my little brother shouting as the man carried him out the door to take him home, ‘I want me brothers, I want me brothers.’"

Morgan: What kinds of things have you learned since you've had the reunions, just in terms of the history itself, that you didn't know beforehand?

Mary: I guess I've learned that people can survive—really survive a lot. I also learned that some of these people became famous people. One person was governor of Alaska. Another was governor of Ohio. And despite all the things that they had gone through and all the adversities in their lives, they made something of themselves. And even the ones that didn't become famous, they raised good families. They were good, law-abiding citizens.

Morgan: What would you like to tell your mother now, what you know now and never having really had that conversation with her?

Mary: I have all these still unanswered questions. My mother died of breast cancer. And that was one of the reasons that I really wanted to find out what had happened to her two sisters. Because I wondered if…how prevalent this was in our family. And so that was one of the things that encouraged me to continue this. But I'd love to know what memories she and her sisters have of the orphan train ride: What was it like? What were their feelings when their father took them to the Children's Aid Society and left them—those kind of questions.

Morgan: Does it make you feel sad that she kept all that to herself?

Mary: Yes, it does, yeah.

Morgan: Well, what has it meant in your life to put these pieces together about your mother and her life and to know that you have that history, essentially?

Mary: It's really given me a great sense of satisfaction. I just hope every time I go out, mother isn't up in heaven saying, "Oh, dear God, there goes that child of mine telling the story I tried to keep a secret." But I'm sure when I get up there and can be with her, she'll understand. It really… It's really given me a sense of doing something not only for her but letting the—letting the United States—the citizens of the United States know what happened to some of these children.

Morgan: And that it affected a lot of lives.

Mary: Yes, that's right. And not only the lives of the children but the lives of their descendants also.

Living in Iowa

Iowa PBS, 2007


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