From the mid 1850’s to to 1930 over 200,000 youth were moved by train across the United States. Many were adopted while others ended up in orphanages or other type of foster care.
In some cases their families knew of the move and in other cases the youth were just removed from the streets and placed on the train in hopes of offering them the opportunity of a better life.
Most would never have contact with their birth families again. There was no such thing as “open adoption” or “reunion registries”.
Today there are but 15 survivors from the Orphan Train days. The following is the story of one survivor.
Orphan Train rider Stanley Cornell’s oldest memory is of his mother’s death in 1925.
“My first feeling was standing by my mom’s bedside when she was dying. She died of tuberculosis,” recalls Cornell. “I remember her crying, holding my hand, saying to ‘be good to Daddy.’ ”
“That was the last I saw of her. I was probably four,” Cornell says of his mother, Lottie Cornell, who passed away in Elmira, New York.
His father, Floyd Cornell, was still suffering the effects of nerve gas and shell shock after serving as a soldier in combat during WWI. That made it difficult for him to keep steady work or care for his two boys.
“Daddy Floyd,” as Stanley Cornell calls his birth father, eventually contacted the Children’s Aid Society. The society workers showed up in a big car with candy and whisked away Stanley and his brother, Victor, who was 16 months younger.
Stanley Cornell remembers his father was crying and hanging on to a post. The little boy had a feeling he would not see his father again.
The two youngsters were taken to an orphanage, the Children’s Aid Society of New York, founded by social reformer Charles Loring Brace
“It was kind of rough in the orphans’ home,” Cornell remembers, adding that the older children preyed on the younger kids — even though officials tried to keep them separated by chicken wire fences. He says he remembers being beaten with whips like those used on horses.
New York City in 1926 was teeming with tens of thousands of homeless and orphaned children. These so-called “street urchins” resorted to begging, stealing or forming gangs to commit violence to survive. Some children worked in factories and slept in doorways or flophouses.
The Orphan Train movement took Stanley Cornell and his brother out of the city during the last part of a mass relocation movement for children called “placing out.
Brace’s agency took destitute children, in small groups, by train to small towns and farms across the country, with many traveling to the West and Midwest. From 1854 to 1929, more than 200,000 children were placed with families across 47 states. It was the beginning of documented foster care in America.
“It’s an exodus, I guess. They called it Orphan Train riders that rode the trains looking for mom and dad like my brother and I.”
“We’d pull into a train station, stand outside the coaches dressed in our best clothes. People would inspect us like cattle farmers. And if they didn’t choose you, you’d get back on the train and do it all over again at the next stop.”
Cornell and his brother were “placed out” twice with their aunts in Pennsylvania and Coffeyville, Kansas. But their placements didn’t last and they were returned to the Children’s Aid Society.
“Then they made up another train. Sent us out West. A hundred-fifty kids on a train to Wellington, Texas,” Cornell recalls. “That’s where Dad happened to be in town that day.”
Each time an Orphan Train was sent out, adoption ads were placed in local papers before the arrival of the children.
J.L. Deger, a 45-year-old farmer, knew he wanted a boy even though he already had two daughters ages 10 and 13.
“He’d just bought a Model T. Mr. Deger looked those boys over. We were the last boys holding hands in a blizzard, December 10, 1926,” Cornell remembers. He says that day he and his brother stood in a hotel lobby.
“He asked us if we wanted to move out to farm with chickens, pigs and a room all to your own. He only wanted to take one of us, decided to take both of us.”
Life on the farm was hard work.
“I did have to work and I expected it, because they fed me, clothed me, loved me. We had a good home. I’m very grateful. Always have been, always will be.”
Taking care of a family wasn’t always easy.
“In 1931, the Dust Bowl days started. The wind never quit. Sixty, 70 miles an hour, all that dust. It was a mess. Sometimes, Dad wouldn’t raise a crop in two years.”
A good crop came in 1940. With his profit in hand, “first thing Dad did was he took that money and said, ‘we’re going to repay the banker for trusting us,’ ” Cornell says.
When World War II began, Cornell joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He shipped out to Africa and landed near Casablanca, Morocco, where he laid telephone and teletype lines. Later he served in Egypt and northern Sicily. While in Italy, he witnessed Mount Vesuvius erupting.
It was on a telephone line-laying mission between Naples and Rome that Cornell suffered his first of three wounds.
“Our jeep was hit by a bomb. I thought I was in the middle of the ocean. It was the middle of January and I was in a sea of mud.”
With their jeep destroyed and Cornell bleeding from a head wound, his driver asked a French soldier to use his vehicle to transport them. The Frenchman refused to drive Cornell the five miles to the medical unit.
“So, the driver pulled out his pistol, put the gun to the French soldier’s head and yelled, ‘tout suite!’ or ‘move it!’ ” Cornell recalls.
Once he was treated, Cornell remembers the doctor saying, “You’ve got 30 stitches in your scalp. An eighth of an inch deeper and you’d be dead.”
Cornell always refused to accept his commendations for a Purple Heart even though he’d been wounded three times, twice severely enough to be hospitalized for weeks. He felt the medals were handed out too often to troops who suffered the equivalent of a scratch.
His younger brother served during the war in the Air Force at a base in Nebraska, where he ran a film projector at the officers’ club.
As WWII was drawing to a close, Stanley Cornell headed up the teletype section at Allied headquarters in Reims, France. “I saw [Gen. Dwight] Eisenhower every day,” he recalls.
On May 7, 1945, the Nazis surrendered. “I sent the first teletype message from Eisenhower saying the war was over with Germany,” Cornell says.
In 1946, the 25-year-old Stanley Cornell met with his 53-year-old birth father, Daddy Floyd. It was the last time they would see each other.
Cornell eventually got married and he and his wife, Earleen, adopted two boys, Dana and Dennis, when each was just four weeks old.
“I knew what it was like to grow up without parents,” Cornell says. “We were married seven years and couldn’t have kids, so I asked my wife, ‘how about adoption?’ She’d heard my story before and said, ‘OK.’ ”
After they adopted their two boys, Earleen gave birth to a girl, Denyse.
Dana Cornell understands what his father and uncle went through.
“I don’t think [Uncle] Vic and Stan could have been better parents. I can relate, you know, because Dad adopted Dennis and me. He has taught me an awful lot over the years,” Dana Cornell says.
Dana Cornell says his adoptive parents have always said that if the boys wanted to find their birth parents, they would help. But he decided not to because of how he feels about the couple who adopted him. “They are my parents and that’s the way it’s gonna be.”
Stanley and Earleen Cornell have been married 61 years. She is a minister at a church in Pueblo, Colorado, and is the cook at her son’s restaurant, Dana’s Lil’ Kitchen.
Stanley Cornell believes he is one of only 15 surviving Orphan Train children. His brother, Victor Cornell, a retired movie theater chain owner, is also alive and living in Moscow, Idaho