Learn about orphans taken by train to Michigan

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published December 17, 2014

Al Eicher, a former electrical broadcast engineer for TV writer and producer Norman Lear, discovered that orphans from New York City and Boston had been transported by train to new lives in the Michigan countryside long before author Christina Baker Kline’s “Orphan Train” novel made it onto the best-seller lists.

Eicher found two obituaries about Holly, Michigan, residents that mentioned the person’s arrival in Michigan on the “orphan train.”

Eicher and his son Dave — who operate Program Source International, a video production, editing and marketing company — first started doing lectures about the orphan train in 2003, after Eicher saw the obituaries in 2001.

Eicher said that between 1854 and 1927, 12,500 orphans were placed in Michigan. The first orphan train riders, 14 boys, arrived via the Michigan Central Railroad in Dowagiac, Michigan, on a Sunday morning. By 1927, 43 Michigan towns would receive orphans from what came to be called the “baby train.”

Most of the children came from the New York Children’s Aid Society and the New England Home for Little Wanderers; 39 percent were girls, and most children were never adopted.

According to the Children’s Aid Society website, an estimated 30,000 children were homeless in New York City in the 1850s. Charles Loring Brace founded the society and proposed that the children be removed from the poverty and danger of city streets, and be sent to live and work on farms.

According to the website, the children would be placed in homes for free and serve as an extra pair of hands to help with chores around the farm, but they were not indentured. 

“Before this, the children were placed in prison with adults,” Eicher explained. “There were no child labor laws. It wasn’t until 1883 that kids were required to go to school.”

Eicher will share what he has learned about the orphans who arrived in Michigan in a one-hour program at the Troy Public Library next month.

The program will include over 200 photos, some featuring the orphans being inspected in churches upon their arrival in Michigan.

However, Eicher said that people who attend will not go home sad.

“The Children’s Aid Society sent out a notice in 1901 asking those who were placed to report back on what they had accomplished,” he said.

“Some of the children went on to become governors and legislators,” Eicher said.

Cassie Suh, reference librarian in the adult services section, coordinated the program. She said the fictional “Orphan Train” is a very popular book and is “flying off the shelves.”

“I thought people would be interested in the true stories and that it happened in Michigan,” she said. “Michigan was one of the biggest stops for the train.” 

“Orphan Train Comes to Michigan” will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 11 at the library, located at 510 W. Big Beaver.

Troy residents may register online at http://troypl.org or call (248) 524-3542. Nonresidents will be placed on a waiting list and contacted if there is seating available.