For 75 years, trains carrying orphans brought about 200,000 children from New York to the rest of the country, many of them to the Midwest. As many as 100,000 of those children came to Missouri.
One of them was Irma Craig, mother of Shirley Andrews of Jefferson City. Andrews has been researching her mother’s story.
Craig was dropped off at under two months old at New York Foundling Hospital in New York City. She was cared for by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and in 1901 at the age of three, arrived on a train in Osage City, Mo. She was taken in by George and Katherine Boehm.
Andrews says her mother was well cared for by the Boehms and doted on by George, but when Katherine died of pneumonia, Craig was taken in by neighbors John Rackers and his widowed sister, Adelaid.
Andrews says Craig was even happier in that home.
“She said she was petted and pampered there,” Andrews said her mother told her, “‘I was never made to work. I worked because everybody else in the family was working.’ She helped make cider, she helped take care of the chickens and take care of the little ducks and helped in the garden.”
Such work was what the creator of the orphan train program had envisioned, according to Missouri State Museum Curator Muriel Anderson, who spent three years with the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas.
“Charles Loring Brace … his intent was that kids would get a family, they would learn a good work ethic … farming was, it was good Protestant values was kind of what he envisioned.”
Andrews says in little towns all across the Midwest, like Osage City, orphan trains provided a significant percentage of the population of children.
“[My mother] went to school with ten other orphans in Taos.”
Irma Craig tought at a one-room country school from about 1917 to 1921 before marrying Robert Schnieders. Andrews says her mother left behind a great legacy.
“My mother and my father had eight children,” she said. “One of them in a nun. Out of seven children, she has 52 grandchildren and when she died when she was 91, she had over 200 great-grandchildren.”
The orphan trains quit running in 1929. Today, it is estimated that one in 25 Americans has a connection to an orphan train rider.
For those looking for more information on the Orphan Trains, contact the National Orphan Train Complex.