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The Orphan Train

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When the writer of Ecclesiastes promised us that if we cast our bread upon the water, it would return to us seven-fold, he probably was not thinking specifically of Harvey Wilson of Springfield, Illinois. Wilson was a very small piece of bread. In 1913, he was cast all the way from New York to the Mississippi River at Granite City, Illinois.

He was not alone. Between 1854 and 1930, some 200,000 orphans, street children, and others abandoned and unwanted were herded onto trains in the East, especially at New York City, and sent west in hopes that families there would take them in. There were orphan trains to Minnesota and Texas, Kansas, Iowa, and Illinois.

The arrival of the orphan train was announced in newspaper. Families were invited to show up, look over the line-up of orphans, and pick the ones they wanted, almost no questions asked. The orphans' futures were uncertain. Many were adopted by caring families, but others ended up as little more than free maids and farmhands.

In 1913, the infant Harvey Wilson found himself on such a train, in the care of his older sister. The sister begged to be allowed to keep her little brother, but the family who took her needed a maid, and could not be bothered with a baby.

That is how Harvey Wilson ended up with the Potter family in Granite City, a very small and helpless piece of living bread. Here, he was welled cared for, grew up, joined the Navy. After the Navy, he moved to Springfield, married, and went to work for the power company.

Until Harvey Wilson died in 1983, his children never knew about the orphan trains. He was too ashamed to talk about it. But they knew that he was not just another dad, that he had an unusual compassion for the less fortunate. His children grew up in a house full of foster children Harvey sheltered, a way of paying back the Potters' kindness. Foster children who came for a week, a month, a year, while their lives straightened out. Not two or three, or even seven. By the time Harvey's daughter, Bonnie, stopped counting, the number of foster children who had lived with the Wilsons had reached 350. Harvey Wilson was not about to stop at the suggested seven-fold.

Rock Island Lines is supported by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Arts Council—a state agency—and by Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.