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Survivors Mark Orphan Trains

April 29, 2000

LAKEWOOD, Colo. (AP) _ It is one of the least-remembered of America’s migrations to the West: as many as 350,000 orphan children shipped out of New York on ``Orphan Trains″ from the 1850s to 1929.

The trains stopped in rural areas so that prospective parents could look over the youngsters and decide whether to take in any of them.

The process wasn’t always successful, recalled Dorothy Sharpley, 81, one of six Orphan Train ``riders″ who attended a reunion Saturday in Colorado. Sharpley said she was rejected by her first adoptive family, in Columbus, Neb.

``I was sent back to New York only to ride the train again and end up in St. Mary’s, Neb., only 20 miles from Columbus.″

The trains were the idea of Methodist minister Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society of New York, intended as a means of moving children out of the alleys and squalor of a city overrun by immigrants and the industrial revolution, out to the West and wholesome farm family life.

``It was a major event in migration to the West, where life revolved around the railroad,″ said Tom Noel, a University of Colorado historian.

For Sharpley, life before the Orphan Train meant having to beg for food in an orphanage with 600 children.

Janet Liebl, author of ``Ties That Bind, the Orphan Train Story in Minnesota,″ said her research indicates the number of orphans who rode the trains is about the same as the number of slaves brought into the United States.

``We don’t hear about these people because they were assimilated,″ said Liebl.

Less than 1,000 of the ``riders″ are estimated to be still alive.

The Orphan Train was a sweet second chance for many, a Dickensian nightmare for others.

``We’d stop in these little towns and get out of the trains and they’d interview us. It was kind of like a cattle auction. If they liked us they’d take us,″ said Stanley Cornell, who joined Sharpley at Saturday’s reunion.

Cornell, then 6, rode the train twice with his brother, Victor, who was 5.

Their mother died when their sister, Eloise, was born, and their father, a victim of a German gas attack in World War II, was unable to care for them. Another sister took Eloise, but didn’t have room for Stanley and Victor.

On their first trip they were taken in by a family in Coffeyville, Kan.

``They were kind and we liked them, but after a couple of months they sent us back. I still don’t know why. Maybe their other kids didn’t like us,″ said Cornell, now 80.

On their second trip, they met a Wellington, Texas, man with two daughters who had wanted a son.

``He only wanted one boy, but he took us both,″ Cornell recalls. His only question ``was whether we liked farms and animals,″ and when they passed that test, he gave them a bag of jelly beans.

Liebl said the nuns of New York’s Foundling Hospital were finding up to 1,000 abandoned babies on their doorstep every year in the 1870s. The nuns and Brace’s group were the main groups sending orphans on the trains.

Brace’s faith in farmers didn’t always pan out for the children. In some cases orphans were treated as indentured workers, and were sent away once the harvest was finished.

``My mother loved me but all my father cared about was how much farm work I could do,″ said Sharpley.

The orphans were told to never try to find out who their parents were, and their adoptive parents signed an agreement not to divulge the information.

``I’m still trying to find out who my real parents are. But the Foundling Hospital tells me the records are all burned,″ said Sharpley.

Cornell got unexpected assistance finding his family. While serving in the Army during World War II, he sent a telegram to J. Edgar Hoover asking for help. The FBI director replied within 10 days, telling him where his father lived.


On the Net:

Orphan Train Heritage Society: http://pda.republic.net/othsa

Adoption Search Information: http://www.cyndislist.com/adoption.htm

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