Orphan Train

A company of children and their chaperones in Wahpeton, S.D., circa 1912.

SAFFORD — The Safford Library has received funding from the Arizona Humanities Council to host a multi-media program, “Riders on the Orphan Train — Foundlings on the Frontier” on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 5:30 p.m. in the library program room.

Few people today know much about the largest child migration in history. Between 1854 and 1929, more than 250,000 orphans and unwanted children were taken out of New York City and sent west to find new homes.

In 1904 a group of 21 Irish Catholic children came to Clifton from the New York Foundling Hospital and the ensuing confrontation over stewardship of these children became a state and national controversy that went to the Arizona Supreme Court. This incident in racial and class conflict is a poignant illustration of the cultural disparities between the East Coast and the developing West at the turn of the last century.

A non-fiction book, “The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction,” by Linda Gordon and published by Harvard University Press, chronicles this historical event.

This “placing out” system was originally organized by Methodist minister Charles Loring Brace and the Children’s Aid Society of New York. His mission was to rid the streets and overcrowded orphanages of homeless children and provide them with an opportunity to find new homes. Many of the children were not orphans but “surrendered” by single parents too impoverished to keep them.

The New York Foundling Hospital, a Catholic organization, also sent out children to be placed in Catholic homes. This 75-year experiment in child relocation is filled with the entire spectrum of human emotion and reveals a great deal about the successes and failures of the American Dream.

The one-hour multi-media program “Riders on the Orphan Train” combines live music by Phillip Lancaster and Alison Moore, video montage with archival photographs and interviews of survivors, and a dramatic reading from the 2012 novel “Riders on the Orphan Train” by award-winning author Moore.

Especially featured will be a recounting of the Clifton controversy. Local relatives and acquaintances of Orphan Train Riders are especially invited to attend and share their stories with the audience.

Although the program is about children, it is designed to engage audiences of all ages and to inform, inspire and raise awareness about this little-known part of history. It is currently the official outreach program for the National Orphan Train Complex Museum and Research Center in Concordia, Kan. Twenty years of touring have provided the presenters with many true stories of Orphan Train Riders and their descendants.

Friends Night Out is sponsored by the Safford Friends of the Library. It is open to all interested community members and is free of charge. Refreshments will be served.

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