After a decade of hopes, the dream of an Orphan Train Museum for Opelousas became a reality Tuesday with the signing of lease agreement between the city and state Orphan Train Society.
Work on the building should be competed within the next four to six weeks and Society President Harold Dupre said work on the exhibits is already under way.
"Give yourself a hand. This has been a long time coming," said Mayor Donald Cravins as he signed the lease agreement in front of about a dozen local Orphan Train Society members.
"We have been working towards this day for seven years, through three mayor," said a joyful Flo Inhern, historian for the local society.
"We appreciate all the help you've given us. We will make you proud," Dupre promised the mayor.
If all goes well, Dupre said the museum should be ready to open to the public in October.
Thanks to a $400,000 grant from the state Department of Transportation and Development and another $100,000 from the Department of Natural Resources, the city is transforming the Union Pacific Depot in Le Vieux Village into the state's first and only the nation's second Orphan Train museum.
The Orphan Train is the popular name for an adoption program that was begun in 1854 by the New York Foundling Hospital.
New York was then experiencing a huge wave of immigrants, many the poorest of the poor. Because of poverty, disease and economic distress, many of their children became orphans and many ended up at the Foundling Hospital.
In an effort to fight overcrowding, the Catholic hospital began the nation's first foster care program by shipping the orphans out by the train-load to be adopted by rural families throughout the nation.
Between 1854 and 1929 more than 150,000 orphans, with numbers pinned to their clothes and accompanied by nuns, boarded trains to new homes.
More than 2,000 of those orphans came to Louisiana, primarily to St. Landry and Evangeline parishes.
Inhern said her group has no idea how many local descendants there may be today, but the numbers are surely in the tens of thousands.
According to records from the national Orphan Train Society, St. Landry Parish's orphans were some of the lucky ones. Where the orphans elsewhere were often treated as little more than unpaid farm hands, here almost all become members of their adoptive families.
Dupre, himself a decent of one of these orphans, credits Father John Engberink, the priest at St. Landry Catholic Church at the time, with making that possible.
"Our orphans were pre-placed, the parents pre-screened," Dupre said.
Under the agreement signed Tuesday, the society will lease the building for $1 per year. In return, it will fill the building with its extensive collection of artifacts and staff the museum. For its part, the city will maintain the building and accept responsibility for insurance on the building and all its contents.
Dupre, a past president of the national Orphan Train Society, said the local museum will be about the same size as the national museum in Concordia, Kan.
"We have more artifacts, a lot more," Dupre said.
The national museum, which has been open for about three years, has attracted more than 4,000 visitors and Dupre believes Opelousas' museum should surpass that total quickly.
"We think we will do much better. Concordia is kind of out of the way. We have more traffic flowing through here," Dupre said, pointing out this museum will be located only a block away from the intersection of Interstate 49 and U.S. Route 190.
"This is definitely going to be a boost for our city," Cravins said.
David Clause with Clause Construction of Eunice, himself a decedent of an Orphan Train rider, is overseeing the work on the depot. He said the project has been a challenge.
"We found rot, termites. We practically had to rebuild the exterior walls. Almost everything had to be custom made, including the doors and windows," Clause said.
Despite the challenges, he called the restoration a remarkable success. "It will be an impressive building when we are finished," Clause said. "It is kind of a labor of love for us."
Part of that restoration involves the reconstruction of the loading dock at the front of the depot. That dock will do double duty, serving as a performance stage for events at the Village, a collection of historic buildings grouped to form an Acadian village as it might have appeared in 1900.