My ancestor the orphan train rider

tamrawilson Uncategorized

When friends tell you to do something, listen.

Late in 2013, Luana, a member of my book club, was discussing bestselling novel, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. I shared the fact that my great-grandmother was an orphan train rider back before the Civil War.

And then Luana said, “I think that story would make a great program.”


I went to work compiling a PowerPoint presentation and contacting the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library. One thing led to another, which led to “Sarah McGuirk, Orphan Train Rider,” a program I now give as a Road Scholar for the N.C. Humanities Council.

Every time I give the talk, I’m amazed at how many have never heard of orphan trains though they have been a topic of documentaries, books and TV programs for years.

Rev. Charles Loring Brace devised a resettlement program in 1853 when he saw the appalling condition and numbers of children roaming the streets of Manhattan. Some estimates were as many as 30,000. One of the “urchins” Brace helped was my great-grandmother Sarah, who wound up in the New York Juvenile Asylum on 176th Street by July of 1860. I know this from documents found at Columbia University. By September of that year, her train wound up in Piatt County, Illinois, where she was taken in by a local judge and farmer, John Hughes. Later she married Alexander McKinley, a Union Army veteran. They had six children including my grandfather. And when Sarah died in childbirth, Hughes’ daughter Belle married Alexander and took on his five surviving children. What goes around comes around.

An estimated 250,000 children were placed with families in small towns and farms primarily in the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern states from 1853 until 1929. It’s a chapter of American history rife with heartbreak and controversy.

Book a Road Scholar program by contacting Caitlin Patton,