The word “orphan” is more complicated than some might think, especially in the mid-1800s to early 1900s, when many orphans were sent from crowded eastern cities like New York to Midwest cities and towns, including Chanute.
Jim Whaley with the Chanute Historical Society gave a presentation on the orphan trains that came to Chanute in 1894 and 1917, each with about 40 children. About 200,000 children were transported by orphan trains between 1854 and 1929.
The presentation was given to a packed room at the Historical and Genealogical Research Center on South Central.
Many of the children who rode these trains, which went all over the United States as well as Canada and Mexico, were abandoned or were one child too many for their birth families.
“Most of them were young enough that they didn’t know anything about their family or where they came from,” Whaley said.
The orphan trains came about because homeless children had become a nuisance to shoppers and others doing business in cities like New York and the boarding houses that had been established for them were overflowing.
“All they could really provide was food, clothing and shelter,” Whaley said. “They couldn’t provide a home. The boarding schools or boarding houses would provide a place for them to stay, but they couldn’t provide an opportunity to be part of a family.”
Leaders like Charles Bryce and organizations like the Children’s Aid Society of New York decided that children should be sent west where there were families as well as farms and animals, which children loved as much then as they do now, Whaley explained.
Not every child was sent out to be adopted. Some were sent to be indentured servants, to work for families or individuals until they became legal adults.
“They did have a future of freedom but it was a form of slavery,” Whaley said.
The Children’s Aid Society wanted to avoid indenture, especially for younger children. They established committees composed of leaders such as doctors, lawyers and bankers in communities where orphan trains would be stopping.
The committee was tasked with finding places for children to be adopted. Others would be brought without prior placement and could be met by prospective adoptive parents.
“They quizzed each other,” Whaley said. “Often when the children found out they were headed to a farm with animals, that’s all it took.”
About 40 children came to the Chanute area in each train, the one in 1894 and the one in 1917. Some stayed in and very near Chanute but others went as far away as Humboldt and Independence.
There were some great success stories. Whaley knew of one woman who had sent a letter to the Children’s Aid Society one year after adopting a child. In the letter, she referred to a child as “the adopted son.” The second year, she wrote another letter referring to the child as her son.
There were also failures. Poor records kept of orphan trains mean that some of the children’s whereabouts disappeared. While families were expected to write a letter, the agent who came on the first train to Chanute went on 74 orphan trains to Iowa as well as an unknown number of trips to Kansas, so children would often fall through the cracks.
One family moved to Canada shortly after they adopted their child, and that child disappeared from the records the Chanute Historical Society has been able to put gather.
The Children’s Aid Society also often failed to keep siblings together, including several sets of twins.
“Sometimes they never saw their sister or brother again,” Whaley said.
Others went on to be businessmen and involved in civic affairs in Chanute. Whaley mentioned several names that were familiar to the older residents who attended the presentation, including John Nation, who owned Nation’s Cleaners in Chanute.
One orphan train rider, George Aberle, was raised in Chanute as George McGrew. He later moved to California and became a songwriter, writing under the name “Eden Ahbez.” Whaley said one song “Nature Boy” was a longtime hit.
A second program on the orphan train riders will be presented at 6 pm April 11 at the Safari Museum Gallery. This multimedia presentation including video and live music will focus on the story of two children who rode one of the orphan trains. It will be presented by Phil Lancaster and is an outreach program of the National Orphan Train Complex, Concordia.