History project on 'Orphan Train' comes alive for Minnesota teen

Most students learn about history from a textbook, but one Minnesota teenager went above and beyond recently to experience it in the flesh.

A project for National History Day quickly turned into a life-changing experience for 14-year-old Claire Isakson when she decided to travel more than 1,500 miles to Arizona to interview 106-year-old Victoria Moe, who grew up in Minnesota and is one of the last living people to have traveled on America's "Orphan Train."

Nearly 200,000 abandoned children were taken by train from the east coast to new families in the Midwest during the late 1800s and early 1900s, a topic that immediately piqued Isakson’s interest. She read the book "Orphan Train" by Christina Baker Kline and other stories about the children who made the harrowing journey.

Despite a 92-year age gap, Isakson heard the elderly woman's story and felt a connection, even sending her a birthday card earlier this month.

"I personalized it, I made it all cute and stuff," she said. "Then I sent it to her and her grandchildren e-mailed me her number."

She spoke with Moe on the phone for nearly an hour and then decided to make the long trek southward.

"I asked my mom if I could use my babysitting money to visit her in Arizona," Isakson said, and her mother approved. "So I did."

Three days after that phone call, history came alive. The two reveled over photo albums and bonded over a letter President Barack Obama sent Moe when she turned 100, with Isakson listening carefully as Moe traced her route to Minnesota and everything that came after.

Moe told the story of how she was taken in by a Minnesota preacher and his housekeeper after being abandoned due to malnourishment, though she was never legally adopted. Moe later went to Iowa for college and became a nurse in California, dedicating her life to the care of children much like herself in the neonatal intensive care unit.

"I felt like I was a part of the family when I was there," Isakson said. "I will never have an experience like that again."

It was a trip she says she won't soon forget, not least because she turned the trip into a first-place performance at the National History Day competition hosted by the Minnesota Historical Society. She's now preparing for nationals, which takes place this June in Washington, D.C.