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Poster Boy of the Orphan Train

Eleven-year-old John Brady of New York City declared himself to be an orphan and, on August 2nd, 1859, boarded a train bound for Indiana.

“How many boys who have no parents would love to have nice homes in the West, where they can drive horses and oxen, and have as many apples and melons as they should wish?”

Such was the proposition delivered in July 1859 by a Mr. H. Friedgen, agent of the Children’s Aid Society to a crowd of orphans and other destitute children in the Nursery Department of the House of Refuge on Randall’s Island in New York.

One of the kids tempted by the description of a pastoral life was John Brady, an Irish Catholic boy who’d been found living on the streets to avoid his father’s drunken beatings.

The eleven-year-old Brady declared himself to be an orphan and, on August 2nd, 1859, boarded a train bound for Indiana. Over the course of the week-long journey into the heartland, Brady forged what would be a lifelong friendship with Andrew Burke, another boy his age from Randall’s.

When John and Andrew descended onto the platform at Noblesville, they were taken to “Aunt” Jenny Fergusson’s hotel, where they were fed and, in turn, put on display for prospective adopters.

“It was the most motley crowd of youngsters I ever did see,” Judge John Green of Tipton recalled. “I decided to take John Brady home with me because I considered him the homeliest, toughest, most unpromising boy in the whole lot. I had a curious desire to see what could be made of such a specimen of humanity.”

The experiment was encouraging. John Brady grew up to be a “fine young man, respected by everyone,” according to Judge Green’s report back to the Children’s Aid Society in New York. Not wanting to stay on the farm, Brady undertook training as a teacher, and was appointed school master at the Mud Creek Public School in Sharpesville, Indiana.

Continuing with his studies at Yale, John Green Brady went on to be governor of the district of Alaska from 1897 to 1906. Following a strangely parallel path, Andrew Burke, who’d disembarked with Brady at Noblesville, was elected governor of North Dakota in 1891.

From 1854 to 1929, the Orphan Train movement placed more than 120,000 New York street kids with farm families in the Midwest and beyond.

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