Vermonter recounts father’s orphan train journey for historical society

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In this historical photo, an orphan train travels to Texas in 1910. (File photo)

Dr. Daniel Bean’s father arrived at the Enosburg Falls train station on Nov. 11, 1905. He was still a baby then, wearing a white dress and traveling with a dozen other children, all aged 3-4 years old.

He was sent north on what was known as an orphan train from the New York Foundling Hospital in New York City.

The children were lined up on the loading dock, and a nurse accompanying them called out their names and the names of the new families that agreed to take them in.

“He never talked about it,” Bean said of his father. “He was of the World War II generation, and they didn’t talk about it. He got on with his life.”

It wasn’t until after Bean retired that he began looking into his father’s past and the orphan train phenomenon. On Monday night, he spoke to the Colchester Historical Society about his research and findings.

“I’ve been up and down the railroad tracks [visiting] towns,” he said on Monday of his hunt for information.

“I would go to all the historical societies and look for the local paper’s editions for November of 1905. And then I would go through all that microfilm until my eyes were going like this all the time,” he said, crossing his eyes and swaying back and forth.

Between 1854 and 1929, the Children’s Aid Society placed up to 250,000 children, mostly in rural areas throughout the country, U.S. territories and Canada.

Sometimes these children were assigned to specific families; other times they were lined up in their “presentation clothes” and selected by prospective families.

“They would check your teeth, feel your muscles, see how you walked,” Bean said. “It was like a slave market.”

Bean said by 1910, at least 262 children came to Vermont on orphan trains. One of them was his father.

“It was an attempt to solve a problem,” Bean said of the trains. “An attempt made by every city in the country.”

By 1849, there were 3,000 children living on the streets in New York City. That number had grown proportionally throughout the first half of the 19th century.

They we’re “great survivalists,” Bean said of the children.

“They could bleed your heart with what happened to them,” he said. “And you wanted to help them. But you also had to keep your hand on your wallet.”

Dr. Daniel Bean tells the Colchester Historical Society about his father’s journey on an orphan train from NYC to Enosburg Falls in November of 1905. (Photo by Neel Tandan)

Many of these children worked selling newspapers and shoes and carried luggage to and from the docks to earn a living each day.

“The solution for street children was to round them up and throw them in jail,” Bean said. “And that’s a very good way to make more criminals.”

This problem was not unique to New York; it was experienced in Boston and cities all along the eastern seaboard.

It was Charles Loring Brace, a philanthropist and minister, who founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853 and conceived of the trains. Brace had traveled to Europe and saw training schools for children in Germany.

He had also witnessed England’s own “boat children” who were being shipped to Canada at the time.

Brace believed the children in New York could have better lives outside of the city, especially in rural areas where extra labor was sometimes desperately needed and new lands were still being settled.

“He put farming and rural living right up on a pedestal,” Bean said of Brace. “Farmers didn’t go hungry; they grew their own food, and they needed labor.”

With the sponsorship of wealthy donors, soon the Children’s Village and the New York Foundling Hospital were also providing children for the trains.

Many of the children were orphans who had lost both of their parents, but many more of them were abandoned, had run away, were too poor to be raised by their biological parents or willingly left to seek work and pay elsewhere.

Eventually, as the west was settled and cities in the midwest grew, orphan trains became less frequent. Bean said they began to be phased out by 1900 as the Children’s Aid Society became more involved in foster care.

Despite this, Bean said Brace made an indelible mark on social welfare in the country.

“A lot of the things they’re doing now, if you go back to 1853 and look at Brace’s notes, that’s what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re still using a lot of the ideas he wrote down over a 150 years ago.”

Despite scarce information and inaccurate public records, Bean tracked his father’s family to Halifax, Nova Scotia. He discovered his father’s name was not what he thought it was and that the circumstance of his father’s birth was murky.

“Don’t dig too deep,” he said with a smile.

When summing up the trains, Bean spoke simply: Some children were better off, and others weren’t.

“There were a lot of good things that happened … I got to grow up in Enosburg and not New York City. Or maybe not at all,” he said.

As a professor who taught biology for almost 30 years, Bean said the children were certainly good for the town from one standpoint.

“Suddenly you have eight new gene pools,” he said. “Something in nature called ‘hybrid vigor.’

“It‘s good to add seasoning to the pot every now and then,” he added.