Orphans and trains have played big roles in Alvernia University’s history. It was an unintended train ride that first brought the Bernardine Sisters to Reading, Pa. Once here, as part of their ministry, they established an orphanage in the building now known on campus as Francis Hall.
Christina Baker Kline knows a thing or two about trains and orphans too, but for much different reasons. Her best-selling novel “Orphan Train” chronicles a dark period in American history about which few have ever heard.
Her book grew out of a moment of desperation in a long blizzard. She and her family were visiting relatives in North Dakota. After three days indoors with her young sons, she pulled a book off the shelf. There was an article inside with a description: “They called it orphan train and it proved there was a home for many children on the prairie.”
Although her father was featured in the story, Kline’s mother-in-law had never heard of orphan trains. Intrigued, Kline searched for more and discovered a chapter of America’s history hidden in plain sight. She dug deeper and found that, beginning in the mid-19th century, a quarter million children were sent across the country to new homes, where they were indentured until they turned 18 or 21.
It was a servitude that many train-riders never spoke about — even later in life — and Kline wanted to know why.
Her book “Orphan Train: A Novel” has sold more than 3 million copies in 40 countries. It’s also been selected for more than a hundred community and campus reads and was optioned as a soon-to-be-produced Hollywood movie. The author spoke at a special 10th anniversary Literary Festival lecture at Alvernia this past October.
On campus, she talked about her writing, research and what she learned about these forgotten orphan trains. “It was the largest migration of children in our nation’s history, and for many of them it was essentially slave labor,” Kline said before her talk.
Able-bodied children, aged 2 through 14, were corralled onto trains, having no idea what was happening or where they were going. Stripped of their possessions and identities, they were given new clothing and a small suitcase, and told to never speak of their personal pasts. “Your life begins the moment you’re chosen,” the children were told.
With the abolishment of slave labor in 1865, farms across the country needed cheap workers. “It was an indentured service program,” said Kline. “They were indentured or contracted until the ages of 18 or 21 and had no rights. It’s an interesting story for that reason.”
The orphan train was Charles Loring Brace’s idea to deal with the some 30,000 children living on the streets in New York City. Around 1850, there were no social programs or foster care, and no child welfare or labor laws.
Brace opened an orphanage, Children’s Aid Society, and then suggested sending children to the Midwest. His idea wasn’t pure altruism, Kline said.
“If we can get these heathen children, these Catholic, Jewish, God knows what, children off the streets and into good, solid Protestant, preferably Methodist homes, maybe they would have a chance,” she said, explaining Brace’s motives.
Siblings were intentionally split up and placed on different trains. And when the trains stopped, the children — only about 30 percent of whom were actually orphans — were lined up by height to be chosen by the locals. A few children became part of their new families, but many others were treated like the help or worse. And because they had no rights, and there were no child welfare laws, anyone could pick up children from the train stations.
For centuries, policymakers have responded to social problems by attempting to remove or relocate the groups viewed as ‘the problem,’” says John Lichtenwalner, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at Alvernia. “These vulnerable groups repeatedly get exploited and marginalized in the process, from children to those involved in human trafficking to individuals struggling with addiction.”
Train companies financed the orphan trains beginning in 1854, eager to populate remote areas reached by new railways. The practice ended in 1929 after the stock market crash.
“Essentially, the railroad companies stopped subsidizing the children’s travel,” Kline said. “They had built their last depot in the Midwest and they didn’t need the bodies any more.”
When Kline discovered the orphan train history, she wondered how this could have happened, and why she’d not heard of it before. She interviewed several surviving orphans who were becoming part of the quickly disappearing world of the final generation of train riders.
In fact, when she started the book there were more than 150 surviving orphan train riders. Today there are fewer than five still living, and all are aged 100 or older. By interviewing the orphans and their families, Kline learned the children shared a resilience. Many carried their secrets for their entire lives, until the next generation of family members began exploring and questioning family trees.
“One said to me: ‘We have a survivor’s spirit. That’s what’s enabled us to persevere,’” Kline said. “To live through abject poverty, being alone and then being put on an orphan train and often being mistreated and making your way in the world requires a kind of grit and stamina. His perspective was these surviving train riders all had that and more.”
The orphan train riders were immigrants, usually relocating to homogeneous communities in the Midwest. Their different backgrounds and often different religions made them stand out, making it easier to take the advice to forget the past and start anew. Later in life, the riders on the orphan trains embraced their legacy, and their proud families have helped to keep the stories alive.
Writing a novel allowed Kline to explore the more troubling moments of these trains, which were last resorts for children who were already traumatized and dealing with loss before they even stepped onto the trains. She wove many facts from her research into the story: how the train riders often were moved to several homes, how they changed their names in their new lives, how one boy was traded by his new family for a pig.
“The orphan trains are an overlooked aspect of our shared history that remind us of the resiliency of the human spirit,” said Lichtenwalner. “These stories reinforce my belief in the dignity and worth of the individual.”
Kline’s book tells the story of a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan train rider. In modern times, a teen in foster care discovers the woman’s history, which is revealed in flashbacks.
The book, with its themes of family, friendship, identity and the meaning of home, has resonated with readers of all ages. The theme of immigration is especially timely. During the age of the orphan trains, immigration rules were different. While the groups immigrating have changed, some things remain the same today.
“It speaks to current-day politics about immigration,” Kline said before her talk. “Who’s allowed in and why, who they are and what we like and don’t like, fear and don’t fear about having people who don’t look or talk like us come to America.”
Since the book was published in 2013, Kline has been on the road talking about orphan trains. She was in Park City, Utah, before coming to Alvernia and then went on to the University of Kentucky.
A new edition of the book will be released in January. Kline is adding a scene to answer the question she’s asked about most (spoiler: it’s about Vivian’s child).
Another version of the book, “Orphan Train Girl,” written for ages 8 to 12, will be released in April.
“It’s fascinating to me still,” Kline said. “There’s still more to learn about this story, because every human’s experience is unique.”