Clara Comstock- Agent for Change
Ordinary People:Extraordinary Lives
By Cleo Lampos
The smoke from the locomotive engine flowed into the open window of the train, carrying bits of soot in the wind. Clara Comstock turned her head away from what should have been fresh air to the stench of over ripe apples, stale bread, curdling milk and the bodies of thirty children. Always the odor of the youngsters after three days in the passenger car. Clara listened for the telltale sounds of muted crying from a homesick preteen, but most had run out of tears. Nightmares persisted for years. Tomorrow she would help them clean up, remind all of their manners, then line up the children on the train platform so the preapproved families could choose a child while the rest of the town folk stared. The responsibility to make sure that the union worked rested squarely on Clara’s shoulders. She carried the weight of these decisions.
Orphan trains. That’s what folks out West in the Dakotas,Kansas and CNebraska called these train cars full of ragamuffins gathered from the streets of Five Points inNew York City. The offspring of Irish immigrants, many of the children had been living on the streets begging for food since the age of eight. Ragged, dirty, perpetually hungry, they huddled at night on grates to stay warm and safe from the police who rounded them up for the orphanages or work houses. Clara knew that many lived lives as pickpockets and thieves, or engaged in immorality because it paid more than the honest wages of selling newspapers or shining shoes. That’s why Charles Loring Brace created the Children’s Aid Society. He believed that sending the street urchins to families on farms in the West provided them the direction they needed to become responsible adults. Clara agreed.
For 8 years, Clara taught the street thugs sent by the New York City Juvenile Department to the Brace Memorial Farm School inValhalla. Built on the premise that every child deserves a second chance, this farm provided a structured life style for the boys placed in its care by the NYC judges. Clara noticed that most delinquents sent to the farm emerged from it with the goals and skills to find a job and become a contributing member of society. The premise that “nature can nurture” proved successful for most wayward boys. Clara believed in the taming power of the farming families out West so much that she quit her teaching position. By signing the agent contract, Clara’s life changed dramatically from the predictability of a stable teacher to a transient train agent.
Clara rode the rails on seventy-four trips from 1911 to1928, personally finding homes for over ten thousand children. She visited each one on a rotating basis until they became 18 years of age. At her death, trunks full of correspondences from “her children” and their adoptive families provided a glimpse of how successful the placing out of children had been. Two governors, one Senator, one sheriff, two district attorneys, three county commissioners, and numerous bankers, lawyers, physicians, journalists, ministers, teachers and businessmen. All attest to the hard work of the Children’s Aid Society agents like Clara Comstock. As the statistics poured in after the last train delivered its children, Clara marveled that between the years of 1854 to 1930 nearly 250,000 homeless children found nurturing families in the West. The foundational tenants of today’s social work theories for foster care, adoption and child labor laws had been put to the test by agents of the orphan trains like Clara Comstock as they searched for safe homes. Their legacy lives on in the work of today’s child welfare advocates.
In Other Words
“The message of the lives of the Orphan Train riders is one of endurance, perseverance, and survival.”
-Mark Engler, Superintendent of theHomesteadNational MonumentofAmerica,Lincoln,Nebraska
“In a perfect world, every child would be nurtured by a loving family, attend a challenging and exciting school and live in a supportive community. But the sad reality is that not every child has these opportunities.”
-Children’s Aid Society
“I have not met one orphan train rider that ever had a ‘poor me’ attitude.”
-Renee Wendigler, author of Extra! Extra! Orphan Trains and the Newsboys of New York
“All the newsboys ofNew Yorkhave a bad name; but we should show that we are no fools…So now, boys, stand up and let them see that you have got the real stuff in you. Come our here and make respectable and honorable men so they can say, ‘that there boy was once a newsboy.’”
Letter from newsboy to the Superintendent of the Lodging House for Newsboys
“To be an agent, she gave up the possibility of marriage and a family of her own. I think we children were her extended family. Long after Miss Comstock retired, she stayed in touch with many riders.”
Art Smith, Orphan Train Rider
“Miss Comstock made friends with people in the towns she visited, but she would be firm with them when necessary. If she thought a child was being mistreated, she would remove the child from that home in an instant.”
Art Smith, Orphan Train Rider
“The work was a great adventure in Faith; we were always helped and grew to expect kindness, deep interest and assistance everywhere. We were constantly attempting the impossible…I thought it was the most incredible thing imaginable to expect people to take children they had never seen and give them a home, but we placed them and never failed to accomplish it.”
-Clara Comstock’s speech in 1931 to Children’s Aid Society staff