The Minneapolis newspaper called her a “mail-order baby.” That’s because, unlike thousands of other children sent west to Minnesota and other Midwestern states from orphanages in New York City, the little girl from Ireland had an adopted family already waiting for her at the train station.
Many of the estimated 250,000 children who rode west on “orphan trains” between 1854 and 1929 were often picked out by families as they stood on depot platforms. Some went to farmers who needed extra hands. Others faced a life of labor in towns and cities throughout the West.
But not Dorothy C. Smith. Minneapolis Alderman D.C. Bow, a well-off widower, and his daughter, Viola, who was tired of being an only child, had made arrangements in advance. They named the 22-month-old girl, who would go on to live a long life filled with love and joy and laughter and travel.
Smith died on Christmas Day at the age of 101, nearly 99 years after she rode the Orphan Train west.
“Viola was lonely, maybe a little spoiled. She was being raised as an only child by her dad,” Jean Landman said of her grandmother. “They were rather well-off and she wanted a baby. So her dad said ‘Yes.’ ”
Landman added: “They basically ordered a blonde, curly-haired, blue-eyed baby.”
Dorothy Bow was raised not far from Minnehaha Falls in a loving home, Landman said. Years later, after marrying Verne Smith, Dorothy tried to contact the New York orphanage she came from. She never discovered the identity of her birth parents or learned her birth name. The family has speculated that her parents perhaps died in transit from Ireland, or shortly after they arrived in New York.
During World War II, Dorothy traveled south to Texas to spend time with her beau, Verne Smith, while he was in basic training. They tied the knot on fairly short notice.
Landman said she found a telegram Dorothy sent home that makes her smile. It reads: “Got married. Stop. Going to Mexico for dinner. Stop. Love to all, Dorothy and Verne.”
After the war, the couple moved to California, where they lived for many years. Verne worked for John Hancock, Landman said. Walt Disney’s brother lived next door. Lucille Ball was a friend. The couple, who could not have children, tried unsuccessfully to adopt. After Verne died, Dorothy returned to Maple Grove to be near her extended Minnesota family.
Dorothy made four return trips to Ireland hoping to connect to her roots. Each time, she would bring along a different family member as a companion. “She was quite the spunky lady,” Landman said. “She just had a wonderful sense about her. Generous and grounded … . “She was just filled with laughter, she was lighthearted and funny. She made everyone else feel good.”
In recent years, Smith was one of only a handful of Orphan Train survivors remaining in Minnesota. One blog said in 2014 that there were only five in the state out of about 100 still living in the United States. There are an estimated 4 million Orphan Train descendants in the United States.
Smith is survived by a niece, Mary Funk, and many other relatives. Services have been held.