Upper Peninsula author examines plight of orphan-train children


In the late 1800s and early 1900s, thousands of orphaned and abandoned children were loaded onto trains heading westbound from the East Coast. The trains would stop along the way so the children could be put on display like livestock and selected for adoption.

It sounds compassionate, but the children were often adopted into horrible conditions amounting to servitude. As the trains traveled further west, the weaker, less attractive children became the only ones left for adoption.

It’s into this time period that Upper Peninsula writer John Smolens drops readers of “A Cold, Hard Prayer,” his new historical-fiction novel that follows two teenagers, Lincoln Hawser, a sickly boy better known as “Rope,” and Mercy, a mixed-race girl, who are among the last children standing on a railroad siding in southern Michigan.

Early in the book, Smolens writes about the tremendous hardships the teens find themselves facing with their foster family, the Naus, who lost their two children to the influenza epidemic.

Mr. Nau is a drunk, and he has his eye on Mercy for lascivious reasons. Things go terribly wrong, and the teens are forced to run away from the fictional southern Michigan city of Otter Creek in the middle of winter. Mercy heads north to St. Ignace in the hopes of connecting with her mother’s aunt, who she prays might take her in. Rope follows closely behind for reasons he can’t identify.

“It doesn’t matter how many novels I’ve written. Each time, it’s like building a wheel from scratch, but I like the idea of discovery,” said John Smolens, author of the new historical-fiction novel “A Cold, Hard Prayer.”
“It doesn’t matter how many novels I’ve written. Each time, it’s like building a wheel from scratch, but I like the idea of discovery,” …

As they make their way north, numerous high-profile adventures await them, especially after they’re accused of murdering Mr. Nau. A dogged police chief, Jim Kinkaid, goes after the duo as they make their way to St. Ignace. Also looking to capture the children are members of the Ku Klux Klan, who want to conduct a “trial” of the two alleged killers to further their cause of organizing in the North.

Smolens said his 12 novels all revolve around geographic locations, which helps move the plot forward.

“Also, this is not the first book I’ve written about the 1920s. It was a remarkable era. We were creating a modern life but also looking back at when the Ku Klux Klan was a real political force,” he said.

Kinkaid “captures” the teens a few different times but treats them with dignity as he arranges to bring them back to Otter Creek to face charges. As he arrives in St. Ignace, he finds himself trapped while repairs are made to the Chief Wawatam ferry. In the short time he’s there, Kinkaid loses his charges and finds himself involved in another tracking episode that becomes complex when the Klan and illegal alcohol distillers get involved.

“It doesn’t matter how many novels I’ve written. Each time, it’s like building a wheel from scratch, but I like the idea of discovery,” Smolens said. “You have to be patient with your writing, and it goes in places you don’t expect.”

As always, Smolens, who has written about the Bath School disaster of 1927 and a plague on the East Coast, among other historical topics, adds tremendous atmosphere to the complex plots. Smolens is a dedicated researcher and always gets his facts right so that the time, place and plot seem believable. It helps that all of his recent books begin with a factual event from history.

In his new book, Smolen also includes a subplot of the plight of Ojibwe children who were placed in Catholic convents to be “saved” but basically became servants.

The orphan trains transported more than 200,000 children, often the children of early migrant families, to the Midwest between the 1850s and 1929, with the vast majority of the children ending up as farm laborers and housekeepers for farm families.

In 1979, CBS aired a fictional TV movie, “Orphan Train,” that detailed the experience, and numerous books have been written about the orphan trains as well.

The first train was sent to Dowagiac, Michigan. As the program expanded nationwide, sending children to 45 states, it began to meet great resistance due to a lack of oversight and the children being treated like they were cattle at an auction.

In 2017, the Dowagiac Area History Museum held a reunion of orphan train riders and their families to recognize this ultimately harmful adoption program.



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