The Orphan Trains 1854-1929
May 3, 2010
Picture the plight of the poor immigrant, leaving poverty and oppression to come to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In most cases they discovered conditions were little better for them in the new world. There were few jobs available, no labor unions, no sick leave, no insurance, and no welfare. A steady supply of willing replacements meant low wages and appalling conditions. Worse, dangerous jobs meant numerous accidents and no safety net for those who suffered disabilities. Small wonder the children of these families suffered terribly. Many found their parents unable or unwilling to care for them, and turned to the streets to sell newspapers, beg for food or steal to get by.
When Charles Loring Brace, a young minister from a prominent Connecticut family, went to New York City in the early 1850s to finish his schooling, he was appalled at the number of street children he saw there. Living hand-to-mouth and often running in gangs, thousands of destitute boys and girls, called “Street Arabs,” were in a desperate battle for day-to-day survival. He learned that many were the offspring of poor immigrants from Ireland, Italy, or Germany, speaking only broken English. Horrified by their plight, Brace came up with the idea of creating an organization to help these “children of unhappy fortune,” as he called them, in an effort to provide them hope for the future.
In 1853, the Children’s Aid Society was born, with the goal of getting homeless and abused children “utterly out of their surroundings and to send them away to kind Christian homes in the country.” The Society raised the necessary funds, arranged discounted train fares, and, if parents could be found, obtained the legal permission needed for relocation. Between 1854 and 1929, as many as 400,000 urban children were taken from the streets and tenements of New York City to new homes in rural America on what became known as “The Orphan Train Program,” a social experiment of unprecedented scope.
Children as young as infants were included in the program, which was the forerunner of modern foster care. Three times per month, groups of six to 150 children were assembled, bathed, and given new clothes, with a second set carried in a small cardboard suitcase. Agents for the Society shepherded them on the three-to-four-day train trips west into the farming states of Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas. They would present each child with a small Bible, sing songs with them, and extol in glowing terms the bright future that lay ahead.
Placement into new families was casual at best. Handbills and newspaper ads heralded the arrival of the needy children in the various towns along the way, and crowds of prospective parents – most hoping to acquire cheap farm labor – would meet the trains to view the children as they were paraded across makeshift stages. This was a very frightening and confusing time for the homeless little waifs on display. Children not selected were escorted back on the train and taken to the next stop, often enduring tearful separation from their siblings.
Local ministers, bankers, doctors, and other leading citizens were asked to form a committee to check the qualifications of potential foster parents and make sure they understood the rules put forth by the Children’s Aid Society: All placements were on a trial basis. Legal adoption was not required. Dissatisfied children could leave. Those who stayed were expected to work as a contributing member of the household. Foster parents were expected to feed, house, and educate the newcomers the same as their own children.
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It was the Society’s goal to visit each child once a year, but there were only a handful of agents to monitor thousands of placements. Brace’s system had to put its faith in the kindness of strangers, and most often, the children found themselves in a kind and loving household where they were well treated. Notable among these examples were the orphan train children John Brady, who later became the governor of Alaska, and Andrew Burke, who was elected governor of North Dakota. However, there were cases of abuse reported, with some children being mistreated and forced into what could be considered slavery. Older boys, especially, would run away and drift through the countryside, making it on their own, as so many young men did in those days. Some reportedly made their way back to New York City, a curious fact, considering their exposure to the more appealing “wide open spaces” of the West.
During this period, 1,500 children were sent to Colorado to the Denver Orphans’ Home from which many were later adopted; however, 22 of these unfortunates are buried in Denver’s famous Riverside Cemetery. A reunion of orphan train riders was held in the year 2000, but only six attended. It is believed there are less than 1,000 still living.
The Orphan Train Program was so successful, it was widely imitated. The Sisters of Charity sent 40,000 children to homes in rural America, and other organizations in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia sent thousands more. But as we progressed into the 20th Century, America’s vision of childhood was shifting from a child’s economic value to their own emotional needs. Fortunately, children would never again be looked upon as just another pair of hands or a strong back to labor in the fields. The last orphan train carried three boys to new lives in Texas in 1929, long after the death of innovator Charles Brace, who died in 1890, acclaimed as the most influential child saver of the 19th Century.