A crowd waited at the Slabinac Railroad Terminal for the train to arrive. Myrtle glanced around at all the hungry people waiting. She appreciated the good people of New York sending trainloads of food.
“If it weren’t for them New Yorkers, Half of us would’ve starved to death by now,” she told her friend, Cathy.
“Isn’t that the truth? I almost hated to slaughter the last one I took from the train because it was so cute, but we have to keep our strength up.”
“With the drought and disease killing our cattle and crops, these trains are a Godsend.”
“Ain’t that the truth? It’s the Catholic Church that sends the tenderest meat.”
A big well nourished man with bulging muscles pushed past them and stood beside the tracks.
“How rude,” Myrtle exclaimed.
“I’m making sure I get my hands on some food. Last train came and went without me getting a single bite.” He put his hand on the pistol stuck into his waistband to show he meant business.
“We’ve been assured there’s enough for everybody on this train. They have so many back East; they’re happy to send their surplus to us,” Myrtle told him.
“I’m surprised they keep sending trainload after trainload,” the man said.
“What else are they going to do with their surpluses?” Cathy said. “Once they load the trains, they never check to see who gets the contents or what happens to it.”
“Good thing too,” the man said. “If they ever checked, they may disapprove of how we use it.”
“Never happen. Out of sight, out of mind,” Myrtle said. “Here comes the train.” She pointed down the track where a locomotive chugged along on the outskirts of town.
When the train’s whistle blew, everyone in town rushed to the station to get their share. The train rolled to a stop, and the townsfolk slid the doors of the cattle cars open.
“Too bad it smells so bad in there,” Myrtle said as she stuck her face through the door of the car nearest her. “It almost ruins my appetite.”
Moaning and crying came from within. “I hate to hear them crying like that,” Myrtle said. “That’s why I slit their throats as soon as I get them home.”
“My God,” Cathy said. “I hope you save the blood for pudding.”
“Of course. Can’t waste anything.”
The man jumped into the car and threw the youngest ones from the car into a pile. “Those are mine, hands off.”
Cathy boosted Myrtle up so she could search the car for any young ones left after the man took all he wanted. She found half a dozen plump ones and passed them to Cathy. She didn’t throw them because bruising made the meat tough.
They loaded what they had onto Myrtle’s wagon and strolled over to the platform where the remainder of the cargo moved around on a platform so the townsfolk could pick and choose. They’d feel the flesh, check teeth, and check the overall health before choosing. If any were left over, they’d be taken on to the next town where they’d be displayed again for the townspeople to choose from.
“What do folks in New York call these heaven sent shipments? ”Cathy asked.
“They’re Orphan Trains,” Myrtle said. “They get rid of their homeless kids by sending them to us.”
The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children.
Two charitable institutions, the Children’s Aid Society (established by Charles Loring Brace) and later, the Catholic New York Foundling Hospital, endeavored to help these children. The two institutions developed a program that placed homeless, orphaned, and abandoned city children, who numbered an estimated 30,000 in New York City alone in the 1850s, in foster homes throughout the country. The children were transported to their new homes on trains that were labeled “orphan trains” or “baby trains”. This relocation of children ended in the 1920s with the beginning of organized foster care in America.
The children were encouraged to break completely with their past. They typically arrived in a town where local community leaders had assembled interested townspeople. The children would usually be put up on a stage-like podium for viewing and inspection. Children would often sing or dance to attract interest. The townspeople would examine the kids, perhaps feeling muscles and checking teeth, and after a brief interview take the chosen ones home. Many siblings were separated during this process because the foster parents wanted to take only one child. Some children became indentured servants to their host families, while most were adopted, formally or informally, as family members.
Between 1854 and 1929, more than 200,000 children rode the “Orphan Train” to new lives. The National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas maintains an archive of riders’ stories and houses a research facility.