A quarter million children rode the orphan trains from 1859 to 1929. Kansas State Historical Society
Storyteller Unveils Lives of Orphan Train Children
By: Paul Edelman
Fleeing from the dismal poverty and crime that swept up immigrant communities in Eastern cities in the 19th century and early 20th century, the many orphans that crowded these neighborhood slums were granted a second chance at America from a whole new perspective through the ‘Orphan Train’ system. On September 1, Pippa White will unveil the lives of orphan train children in the ‘Story of the Orphan Train’ presentation at the Red Bridge Mid-Continent Public Library at the Red Bridge Shopping Center. According to White, a large appeal of the program will be a discovery of a piece of “forgotten” America.
White tells of a system of mixed bags: some children riding these trains had wonderful experiences, while others suffered negligence and severe abuse. She said these children in the Orphan Train system commonly hailed from locales such as Germany and Ireland. From the ramshackle immigrant neighborhoods they came, and settled among the towns, hamlets, and burgs of the American Midwest. She made a special note that these children, some of whom did not even speak English, fled not to the fairly large burgeoning cities such as Chicago or St. Louis, but instead dispersed throughout the U.S. heartland’s farmhouses. White explained how orphans were guided to families of farmers and ranchers, and, through hard work and acclimation to ‘American’ values, administrators of this welfare project hoped that these poor immigrant children would grow into strong and pure patriots through labor in an agrarian lifestyle.
White will portray the story of these children, literally. As an actress and researcher, she refers to her productions as “part theatre, part storytelling, part history.” She said she originally planned on performing a sort of historical fiction, but after plumbing memoirs, diaries, interviews, and experiences of these ‘Orphan Train’ riders, she decided that the true story encapsulated drama that fiction could not.
Through a reenactment of the lives of real train riders, White creates an emotional connection to the trials these orphans endured in their trips aboard these trains and their adoption by local Midwest families, with many arriving to Kansas and Missouri homes.
To hear the story of these children that arrived by the train-load in a rediscovery of “forgotten” history, registration is required for Pippa White’s upcoming ‘Story of the Orphan Train’ presentation starting at 6.30 pm. at the Red Bridge Mid-Continent Public Library on Thursday, September 1. Call 816-942-1780 for more information.