ERATH — Alice Bernard boarded a train in New York City at the age of 3, traveled all the way to New Iberia, and arrived in 1919, after being specially ordered by a Delcambre family, who had requested a girl with brown hair and brown eyes, said the 95-year-old “Orphan Train” survivor.
Bernard was one of the more than 250,000 children shipped from New York City to the Gulf Coast and Midwest between 1860 and 1929.
The Orphan Train was an effort to help reduce the number of orphaned children living in the city, whose parents, often Irish immigrants, were forced to abandon their kids due to the lack of work in New York, Bernard said.
Two organizations formed, one Protestant (The Children’s Aid Society) and the other Catholic (The New York Foundling Hospital), both with the idea to find abandoned children homes in other places throughout the country.
“I was special ordered by the priests in Delcambre, who sent a package with a dress and a label on it with the address of the people I would be living with,” Bernard said.
The family Bernard was selected to live with was Mr. and Mrs. Auguste Geoffroy, she said.
“I came down here as an indentured servant,” she said, but noted, by the age of 14, the Geoffroy’s decided to adopt her.
For the children who were not specially ordered, the process was a little different, Bernard said.
“They would put ‘em on a platform, look at their teeth, examine ‘em like they were slaves,” she said. “If you weren’t picked, they put you back on the train and brought you to the next place.”
With the death of the Geoffroys in 1939 and 1949, Alice inherited their land, where her husband, Reuben J. Bernard farmed sugar cane.
“This was such a huge part of American history,” one of Bernard’s seven children, Kaye Bernard, said.
“They just put up a brick wall at the museum in Opelousas with all the names of the children that came down here. They’re trying to keep the memory of the Orphan Train alive.”
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