The Orphan Train

Curtis Varnell, PhD.
The Orphan Train arrives in Paris, circa 1916.

As the train pulled to a stop, dozens of children exited the passenger cars and stood on the platform nervously looking over the crowd gathered to greet them. The long trip from New York city was over but the people waiting to welcome them were total strangers. Many of the kids were dressed in ragged, cast-off clothing, and their small bags contained everything they owned. These were the kids of the Orphan Train.

The trains arriving in Clarksville, Paris, Booneville and Fort Smith contained dozens of the more than 200,000 kids sent from New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia to be adopted. Most were children of the millions of immigrants pouring into the major cities. Immigrant families often had many children, but if accident or illness took the father, the entire family was left poverty-stricken and destitute. Others were just products of illegitimate affairs, neglect or desertion; children unwanted by those that chose to bear them.

The Children’s Aid Society and other social workers gathered up the waifs left in children’s homes or destitute on the streets, packed them aboard trains, and sent them west hoping worthy families would take them in. An ad placed by the society read: "A group of homeless children from the East will arrive on Feb. 25, 1910. These kids, of various ages have been thrown friendless upon the world. Applications for the children can be made by applying to the local committee." It went on to describe the responsibility of the parents to raise the children and care for them.

Evelyn (Schluterman) Hatcher of Paris had family waiting on the train. Her grandfather, John R. Klyne was on the train. He was two-years-old, not even old enough to understand what was going on. His name was sewn on the inside of his coat. What a strange world the little, curly-headed guy must have faced as he exited from the train to meet his new family. Ed Vonderheide was adopted by a family from Scranton. His story is told in the song "Eddie Rode the Orphan Train" by Jim Roll and is available on YouTube.

Robert Adams, a long-time family friend and minister, was the son of Carl Wetzl who was adopted by the Adams family. The Kennedy family of Subiaco are decedents of travelers on the train, kids who went on to be successful businessmen and prominent citizens of the community. Many families in Logan, Franklin, Johnson and Sebastian counties have ancestors from the orphan trains.

As the children exited the train to a new world, they knew little of the world that awaited. The story sounds so sad, children unwanted or abandoned in a cruel world, left to find their way at too early an age. Some were in loving, caring families. Others were adopted to be used as field hands and free labor. The kids slowly descended the steps to the fate that awaited. Life is not always easy; those who are successful overcome obstacles and rise above them. Some are just given many more obstacles to overcome in life.