HENRY — Members of the Chief Senachwine Chapter NSDAR learned about the Orphan Trains at their District II meeting from Bryn Callahan, 17-year-old president of the Illinois Society Children of the American Revolution (C.A.R.). Chapter members are now interested in learning the history of any area residents aware of youthful ancestors who rode the trains between 1854-1929.
At least 10,000 children are estimated to have been placed with families in Illinois through hundreds of Orphan Train stops at train depots.
A few orphans who settled with area families follow: at Chillicothe, Amelia Werner, 1897, family of J.M. Uhden; at Henry, William Eckhardt, age 17, family of Jonas Maust; at Sparland, Phillip Houston, age 15, family of H.D. Bonham; at Edelstein, Joseph Troiano, 1891, family of John H. Keifer; at Bradford, William Lemme, 1891, and Lena Burke; at Castleton, William Rust; at Putnam, Gertrude Weisbecker, 16, 1897, family of Irven Williams.
Orphan Trains brought homeless, abandoned, orphaned and neglected children from Eastern cities, overcrowded with immigrants with many lacking work, to various Midwestern states and eventually across the nation and into Canada.
By 1850, an estimate of 30,000 such children existed in New York City alone. Groups such as the Children’s Aid Society, Children’s Village and the New York Foundling Hospital sought to alleviate the suffering of these children with their relocation plans.
Flyers and ads were used to announce the arrival of an Orphan Train. Children would be lined up at train stations to be inspected by potential parents. Often siblings were separated. Many families taking in the children planned to feed, clothe and educate them until age 18. Some children were adopted. Some were overworked or abused, or used as servants. Certainly, such major movement affected the lives of these riders, their foster families, and American culture.
The hope for the Orphan Train children was to find loving homes and a flourishing childhood, but not until child labor laws were passed in the late 1800s and foster care groups sought to keep families together did improvements begin.
Bryn Callahan himself is a descendant of Orphan Train rider, Richard Wilhelm Groharing, who is Callahan’s 3-times-great-grandfather. Groharing found a new life in Illinois after being left in a New York City orphanage with his brothers. His story ends happily.
Callahan, as Illinois state president of C.A.R., is allowed to choose a project of historical or patriotic significance for support by the statewide society. Under his theme of “All Aboard the Orphan Train,” the group is raising funds to honor the Orphan Train riders.
A bronze memorial statue will sit on a bench at the Amboy Railroad Depot Museum in Amboy. The statue will feature a little boy and girl, each holding a toy and waiting for a new, hopefully loving, home. The bench and statue grouping will be mounted on a cement pad and will feature a small presentation plaque and an informational plaque about the Orphan Trains in Illinois.
To share information about an Orphan Train ancestor, call 815-303-1034.