It seems incomprehensible that there was a time in America’s not-so-distant past when nearly a quarter of a million children from East Coast orphanages were loaded on trains and sent west, where they were presented “for the picking.” West by Orphan Train tells the story of these children, who were taken from a sometimes-rough existence to an unfamiliar rural setting during an era that lasted from 1854 to 1929. As some of the last of the still-living orphan train riders like to remind us, it was a different era, one that can’t be judged without understanding what lives were like then. West by Orphan Train, a documentary film completed in October 2014, offers that understanding.
The film is partially based on a book by author Clark Kidder, who told the true story of his paternal grandmother’s journey to Iowa as a child. The book, Emily’s Story: The Brave Journey of an Orphan Train Rider, chronicles the experiences of Emily Reese Kidder as she left a New York City orphanage and rode west to unfamiliar and seemingly wide open country. The film incorporates this story along with those of other orphan train riders, including interviews with two that are still living. Over six thousand children eventually made their homes in three hundred Iowa communities over the seventy-five years that the orphan train program existed
Although the documentary was only released in Iowa in late 2014, it has already received much attention and acclaim from those interested in this intriguing human story. The authors place the subject matter in the historical context of New York City, immigrant life in general, the effect of the Civil War on families, and the enactment of Child Welfare Laws, which ended the trains in 1929. Kidder and Krantz make a distinctive historical contribution with their strong regional focus and emphasis on documenting the experiences of individuals.
The documentary also seeks to correct misimpressions or false assumptions about the orphan train experience, in that the process and family placements did not always improve children’s lives. West by Orphan Train takes a balanced look at the whole story, which had both humanitarian and cruel aspects. The emotional impact of the film and its discovery of illuminating primary sources will undoubtedly stir new investigations and insights in Iowa’s genealogical and local history discussions