Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series about the Riders of the Orphan Train presentation.
Two people have dedicated their lives to a single story that many people still haven’t heard.
Phil Lancaster, a bluegrass musician from Arkansas, and Alison Moore, a former University of Arizona creative writing professor, have been criss-crossing the continental US for the last 20 years giving historical presentations about the Orphan Trains that transported more than 250,000 children from New York City across the country in search of new homes from 1854 to 1929. They’ve been performing together for so long that they often finish each other’s sentences.
Moore said the topic was first brought to her attention when a creative writing student of hers told her about a 1993 PBS documentary about the subject. Shortly after, she attended the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, where she met Lancaster, then playing in the bluegrass band Still on the Hill, through a mutual friend.
The two rented the PBS documentary and were immediately drawn to the story. Over the next few weeks, they composed songs about the topic together over the phone while Allison began working on a short story that would become her novel, Riders on the Orphan Train.
“There’s a lot of American history woven in there, some specific to orphan trains, some specific to the whole idea of migration and how people have been displaced in this country,” Moore said.
The story and songs later became the basis of their presentation. The story of one particular rider, Lee Nailing, was a major inspiration for them.
“The song “Ezra’s Lullaby” was a melody I came up with and when Alison started reading some of the verses she’d written over the phone there were one or two ideas in what she had that really struck me,” Lancaster said. “And then, from that point on, I knew that would work with this melody.”
“Maybe this Town,” another part of the presentation, is the first and only song Moore has ever written.
“I don’t write songs,” Moore said. “I write novels and short stories, but that just came out of the ether.”
David Massingale’s song “Rider on an Orphan Train,” which also made it into their performance, won the song contest at the Kerrville Folk Festival a few years later.
The now-defunct Orphan Train Heritage Society of America was in Springdale, Arkansas, and was close to Lancaster’s home at the time. In 1997, the center held a 10th Anniversary reunion event for Orphan Train riders. Lancaster attended, met people who’d ridden the train as children and was invited to take part in a reenactment.
“I called Allison and said ‘I get to ride the Orphan Train!’ and she said ‘not without me you don’t,’” Lancaster said.
“They had about 22 kids in period costume and we all rode the train from Springdale down to Van Buren,” Moore said. “It was in an old 1912 Pullman Car. They did a reenactment at the old opera house in downtown Van Buren.”
The next year, Moore resigned from the University of Arizona and the two began traveling, presenting the story though song, still photos, videos and excerpts from Moore’s novel. The program is the official outreach program for the National Orphan Train Complex Museum and Research Center, located in Concordia, Kansas. Lancaster said Opelousas, Louisiana is home to a second Orphan Train museum, but it’s mostly dedicated to children who came to the state, not the bigger story.
Since then, the pair has attended reunions in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas, along with a 2000 homecoming reunion held in New York City.
“We were already so moved,” Moore said.
Wherever they go, Moore and Lancaster gather firsthand accounts and answer questions. Orphan train riders or their families often attend the events and share their experiences. Some bring scrapbooks or mementos from their time on the train.
“One time somebody came with a little wool coat her mother had worn as an infant,” Moore said.  “We saw an actual suitcase in Scottsbluff, Nebraska a couple of weeks ago.”
Moore’s historical fiction novel was published in 2012. The story follows two fictional children, Elizabeth and Ezra, who find themselves on the train. She said characters weren’t based on specific people, but were instead based on firsthand accounts from orphan train riders.  
“The two of them meet and they’re not together more than a few hours, but they make a huge impression on each other,” Moore said. “I guess because I had already met Phil and was already aware that my entire life had changed entirely I kind of added that in.”