Orphan trains crossing America
Wednesday, February 05, 2014 4:00 PM
LINDEN, Texas - For starters, if you don't know about "Orphan Trains," you need to take time out and read up on the subject. Then come back and read this story. Sadness and despair prevail. But its worth the read. Grab a Kleenex. You gonna need one.
Shortly after moving to Linden in the 1980's, I met a man who was an "Orphan Train" rider in the Roaring 20's. His name was Lee Nailing, but he started out in life as Alton Clement, a child running the streets of New York City, a street child just trying to survive, to keep from starving. This is a condensed story Lee told me about his life, and riding the "Orphan Train" to Texas to find a new life.
When Alton was small and his mother was still alive, all was well in the Clement home in NYC. His father was working and they had a warm home and plenty of food. He had older brothers and an older sister, and two younger brothers, Leo and Gerald. All went well until new baby brother George was born. His mother died giving birth to George. Shortly after, his father lost his job, and no work could be found. The Great Depression was rearing its ugly head in the heavy industrialized East, though the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 was still a few years away.
Back then, there was no welfare system in place for the needy. No food stamps, no subsidized housing, nothing for the needy, the starving, the homeless. The Clement home disbanded, some of the children were put in foster homes. All of the children were eventually made wards of the State. Alton decided he would rather fend for himself on the streets of New York City. He became a street child,
There were tens of thousands of children fending for themselves on the streets, and Alton felt no guilt in stealing food. He slept where he could find a warm place. His predicament was painful, his future bleak. Then the authorities caught up with Alton, and he, along with younger brother Leo, were put in an orphanage. All the other children had been placed in foster homes.
The State of New York decided to find permanent homes for Alton and two brothers. Leo and Gerald. Their method was to put them on an "Orphan Train," and the boys would ride the train across America until someone claimed them. At every train stop, the children would be displayed, and anyone could take them off the train and claim them as their own. The Clements brothers stayed on the orphan train all the way to Texas.
Before the train left NYC, Alton's father showed up to visit his sons. This made the authorities angry. He had been told to stay away. He gave Alton a paper with his address on it, and asked Alton to write him when he was settled. Alton promised to do so. His father cried as they said goodbye. The boys sobbed and hung on to him, fully expecting to see him again soon.
The next morning Alton discovered the envelope with his fathers address was missing. The lady "caretaker" told him to forget his father, just concentrate on starting a new life. He never saw or heard from his father again. He was angry and bitter toward the lady, and the authorities.
At the train stops, the children were numbered, and displayed outside the train. Occasionally, siblings were separated, and it was a sad scene when they were forced apart. Nine year old Alton had decided he would take care of his brothers and keep them together. Someone would have to take them all, it was gonna be all three, or none at all. Then the train stopped at a small Texas farming community, the children were displayed, and a middle aged couple chose little Gerald. Gerald was overjoyed, yelling to his brothers "we have a new home."
When they started loading the children back on the train, Gerald started crying and screaming "Don't take me from my Bruvers. Let me stay with my Bruvers," As the train pulled out, Alton became more angry and bitter, expecting to never see little Gerald again. Whats going to happen to me and Leo, he was thinking. He was so angry he felt like exploding.
Next week: part two of Orphans Train, "Alton finds a new home."
Roy Bale can be reached via email at email@example.com.