Summertime is for family reunions—members both far-flung and near at hand come together under trees or in old rambling farmhouses, gathering in loose circles of conversation. Children and dogs romp in the grass while the grownups sip cold beverages, recount old jokes and stories, and look for the telltale flickers of family lineage reflected in the faces of the younger generation.
But reunions aren’t just for the blood-related. Sometimes circumstances create families out of people who share no DNA, but whose shared experience creates a bond just as strong. This is the case among the riders of the Louisiana orphan trains and their descendants, who will be celebrating their own reunion on Saturday, July 13 at the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas.
Born out of equal parts compassion and necessity, the Orphan Train Movement began in 1853 as a solution for the tens of thousands of abandoned, orphaned, or otherwise homeless children living on the streets of New York. One refuge for these children was the New York Foundling & Orphan Asylum, run by the Sisters of Charity, who entreated the network of Catholic priests throughout the nation to help identify good Catholic homes in which their charges could be placed.
These orphans were typically placed with Catholic families in rural areas; Louisiana received over two thousand youngsters, who were delivered to train depots throughout the state, including stops in Lafayette, New Orleans, and Opelousas.
Margaret Brown Briley’s father was one of the orphans spirited from New York to the Louisiana prairies. In June, 1919, at the age of five, John Brown was sent to live with the Doucets of Grand Prairie, Louisiana. His assigned number was 49. Number 48 was Alice Kearns Bernard, currently the only known living orphan train rider, who went to live with her new family in Erath, Louisiana. The stories of these two individuals, along with scores of others, are told through artifacts, photographs, and documents housed at the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum, 223 S. Academy Street in Opelousas.
Though tens of thousands of children were placed with families throughout the nation, there are only two museums dedicated to the preservation of their stories in the country—the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas, and the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas. The Louisiana-based group of orphan train survivors held their first meeting in 1990. Briley described her father’s sense of reunion at the only gathering he was able to attend before he passed away: “Daddy felt like that was part of his family–that they were like relatives. At that time, I’d say there were about fourteen of them that were still living. And when they would meet up together, they’d talk about the good points and the bad points in their lives. But they were happy to have been taken in by these people from South Louisiana.”
The 2,400-square-foot museum opened in October, 2009, and is run by a board of directors composed of descendants of the Louisiana orphan train riders or those connected through marriage or friendship. The museum is also staffed by direct descendants able to share their own personal family histories with visitors along with general information about the Orphan Train Movement in Louisiana.
Admission to the museum is free, and hours of operation are Tuesday—Friday from 10 am–3 pm and Saturday from 10 am–2 pm. More information can also be found online at laorphantrain.com or by calling (337) 948-9922.