Precious ‘cargo’ not to be forgotten

April 9, 2019 GMT

AMBOY – Stories of a special train carrying orphaned children in their quest to find loving homes in the Sauk Valley have been told over the years.

The Illinois Chapter of the Children of the American Revolution is making sure such abstract memories become concrete – bronze, actually.

A statue commemorating the “orphan trains” is in the works for all to see outside of the Amboy Depot Museum.

Bryn Callahan, 17, a Moline High School junior and president-elect of CAR’s Illinois chapter – he will be formally installed this week – recently started this project to bring attention to the more than 10,000 riders who found homes in Whiteside, Lee, Ogle, and Carroll counties, and elsewhere in Illinois, from 1854 to 1929.

Callahan’s great-great-great-grandfather, Richard Groharing, rode on one train with his brothers, William and Edward. Richard and William, who were born in Prussia, eventually found homes in the Fulton-Thomson area. Edward found a home in Amboy.

According to research done by Callahan and his grandmother, Luanne Bruckner of Thomson, 213 children were placed throughout northern Illinois: 32 in Whiteside County, 31 in Lee County, 27 in Ogle County and nine in Carroll County.

“I really wanted to have something to show, because there isn’t an object around of this, and when that happens, it’ll get lost in history,” Callahan said. “Part of our CAR motto is the preservation of history, and I was concerned that the historical significance of the orphan train through Illinois, and stopping in Amboy, or other regions of Illinois, had become lost.”

Bruckner is a past vice president of the Carroll-Jo Daviess Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

“He’s always been interested in history,” Bruckner said. “He’s part of a very good organization to train young people and be patriotic through history. I’m very proud of him.”

Local historian Carol Chandler of Dixon has done much over the last decade to keep that history alive.

Chandler has been researching orphan trains since 2008, and has given many presentations on the topic to various groups.

She was inspired by a friend, the late Joanie Hipple of Dixon, who told stories of how her grandmother came to the area on one of the trains. 

Chandler also has helped some residents trace their ancestry back to the trains.

“I started research, and it just sort of took over my life,” she said. “I’ve always been amazed that, for as much impact it had on the area, no one knows about it.”

Orphan trains carried children from poverty-ridden neighborhoods in Boston and New York City to new homes in Illinois, most arriving as a result of the influx of immigrants at the time.

With a shortage of farm labor in the western United States, a Protestant minister, Charles Loring Brace, came up with an idea to solve both problems, and the orphan train became a reality.

“Many had nothing or very little,” Chandler said. “They lived in ghetto-types of neighborhoods with little to eat, and there were a lot of children who ... lived in the streets.”

Social service organizations to assist orphans did not exist, and lack of proper nutrition and health care led to high morbidity and mortality rates.

When a train arrived, children would line up next to each other, and anyone who wished to adopt a child simply would pick one or two out. 

“Here you had all of these kids in the East Coast that needed homes, and all of these farms here that needed labor,” Chandler said.

As the country developed, trains carried orphans farther west, and so by the turn of the century, fewer were stopping in the Sauk Valley.

The last train stopped in Texas in 1929. By then, laws were enacted to combat child labor and increase attendance in schools.

The monument, which depicts two unnamed children from an orphan train, sitting on a bench waiting to be chosen, will cost $5,000 from The Large Art Co. in Baltimore.

To make it happen, Callahan is selling commemorative pins for $10 at the Depot Museum.

Other items, such as cellphone rings and renewable grocery bags, are in the works.