I recently read a book about the orphan trains, which ran between 1854 and 1929. During that time, approximately 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children ride the train throughout the United States and Canada, to be placed with families who were looking for a child, or just as often, a worker for their farm. The orphan train movement was necessary, because at the time, it was estimated that 30,000 abandoned children were living in the streets in New York City. I had heard of the orphan trains, mostly from the movie called “Orphan Train,” but much of what really happened with those children was very new to me, and quite shocking.
Today, while my husband, Bob Schulenberg and I were in the Black Hills, we rode the 1880 Train, as we almost always do when we are here. When they mentioned that the train had been used in the movie “Orphan Train,” a fact that I had heard many times before, the stories from the book I had read came back to mind. My mind instantly meshed to train, the book, and the movie into one event.
The children who traveled on the orphan trains were victims of circumstance, and they had no control over their lives at all. Each one hoped that their new family would be nice. The older ones didn’t have high hopes. The older boys pretty much knew that they would be farm hands. And most of them were right many were made to sleep in the barn, because they were thought to be thieves. If they were thieves, it was because they had to steal to survive. They did whatever it took to survive.
As Bob and I rode the train today, in the eye of my imagination, I could picture what it must have been like to be one of those orphans. The were sitting there watching that big steam engine take them to someplace they didn’t know, and probably didn’t want to go. They didn’t have high hopes for a great future, but then again, the past wasn’t that great either. They were forced to make the best of a bad situation, and the people who were in charge didn’t really care what happened to them. They were just doing their jobs. I have ridden the 1880 Train many times before, but today, it felt a little bit different, somehow. I knew that I wasn’t an orphan riding that train, but I certainly felt empathy for the children who were.
If I tell you that there exists in this world, a children’s railway, would you think of the Orphan Train, bringing children out West for adoption into families there? Or would you think of some kind of forced child labor on the railways? Either way…you would be wrong. The Children’s Railway was started in Soviet Russia in 1932. The concept is a unique one. The idea was to teach teenaged children to build and run a railroad as a way of learning the railroad trade. It was an extracurricular activity that was voluntary. Things like that aren’t offered in this country…at least not that I’m aware of. Nevertheless, I think my grandfather, Allen Luther Spencer might have enjoyed that, had it been offered in his time. I also think that my cousin by marriage, James Forseen, might have loved that since he has always loved trains, and managed to land a job with the railroad. He loved them so much that he had to have one in the wedding photos when he married my cousin Dani Byer Forseen. Just imagine James, if you could have worked on a railroad in high school!!
As I said, the children’s railway was a phenomenon that originated in the USSR. The first Children’s Railway opened in Gorky Park in Moscow, on July 24, 1932. It was a greatly developed activity in Soviet times. By the time the USSR broke up, there were 52 children’s railways in existence in that country. Many children’s railways are still functioning in post-Soviet states and in Eastern Europe, so obviously this is an activity that has taken off…and imagine the kids who would stay out of trouble if they fell in love with railroad work. I can envision the kids having such a great time running the railroad that they would never have the time or the inclination to get into trouble or into gangs. Their imagination would be too busy.
The children’s railway has come so far that many of them exhibit railway technology not seen anymore on the main lines and they can be seen as heritage railways. Even though a few exceptions exist, most of the children’s railways that were built in the communist block have a track gauge of at least 600 mm (1 feet 11 5/8 inches) and can carry full size narrow gauge rolling stock. Of course, for the sake of safety and training purposes, the children’s railways are all run under the supervision of adult railroad workers, but what better way for things to be done. The children’s railways in existence these days are mostly for the purpose of tourism, but I suppose that if necessary, they could be used for other reasons. Whatever their purpose is today, I think the Children’s Railways sound like a very cool idea.