The Orphan Trains

The Orphan Trains
Not so long ago, when immigrants were sailing past the Statue of Liberty by the thousands to flee hunger, disease, the Irish Potato Famine, religious persecution, revolutions and other disasters all over Europe, they fled to America for a new chance to live a better life. Between 1841 and 1860, it is estimated over 4 million newcomers arrived in our country. They brought everything they owned in small suitcases and trunks. They also brought a deep work ethic, a rich tapestry of different cultures, and a fervent desire to assimilate in their adopted country. This was before the day of government handouts and life-long welfare programs, so they came eager and willing to work hard for their new American Dream, where the possibilities were endless..
Tenements sprung up all over New York City and other large population centers to house this mass migration, creating mini-cities of their own by geographics and culture. The Irish had a neighborhood, the Germans established a zone, etc. Finding work was tantamount to having food to eat. Jobs were scarce and labor was cheap; many employers were merciless, hence the creation of “sweat shops”.
The living conditions in the tenements and the crowded work environments created the perfect storm as disease ran rapidly throughout the unsanitary tenements, where people often lived 10-to-a-room. Frequent fires also spread through the flimsy tenement buildings, killing or maiming lots of immigrants. The end result of all these deaths was a population of about 30,000 abandoned children living on the streets of New York alone.
Many were real orphans with no parents, no family nearby to look out for them. They lived on the streets, slept in doorways, foraged in garbage cans for food. Some were just turned out of their families because their growing families couldn’t take care of them.
Because of the magnitude of the problem, Reverend Charles Brace and a group of businessmen in New York City formed an organization to help care for these neglected children, calling it the Children’s Aid Society, which placed over 200,000 children between 1854 and the 1930s.
Their solution was the development of the orphan trains movement to transport these homeless children out west where the hope was people would adopt them into existing families. Many were adopted into loving homes. Unfortunately, many older children were “adopted” as indentured servants to provide cheap labor for farms, homes and shops.
Agents of the Children’s Aid Society would plan the route, post flyers in the towns along the way and arrange for local residents in each town to match up these children with families in the local area. The “screening” committee in each town selected usually consisted of the town doctor, clergyman, newspaper editor, store owner and/or teacher. That way, these committee members were in an ideal position to know the needs of their community and how to get the word out. They were instrumental in helping the Aid Society agents in the placement process.
The first train to go out, carrying 46 ten-to-twelve year olds, on September 20, 1854 created America’s first “foster children.” All were adopted in Michigan and the program grew as a viable option for all these homeless children. In the beginning, the early trains were a lot like cattle cars with seats and a “bathroom” consisting of a hole in the train car floor. A Children’s Aid Society agent or two would accompany the children on their journey, providing order, chaperones and meals along the way.
What was it like to ride the Orphan Train? (
Picture 30 to 40 very young children traveling with two or three adults. These children varied from babies to children in their teenage years. Most of these children had no idea of what was happening to them. They may have been told that they were going out west, but they really had no idea what that meant. Most of them had never been outside of New York City. The children, that were older than babies, often were frightened, sometimes excited over the new views outside the train windows, and often were very confused over what would happen next.
They lost any means of contacting their relatives back in New York. They were never to speak, or think of their families again. They were to completely start over with new families. The older children would remember their old life. The babies would have no memory of life in New York.
When the trains pulled into the stations, the caretakers would get the children cleaned up ready for inspection. The children would climb down the tall train car steps onto the platform, and march to the meeting place. Sometimes this meeting place would be a baggage wagon on the train platform – sometimes it was the local church – sometimes it was the local opera house [what we would call the movie house now]. Almost always, the children were up on a stage of some kind. This because known as being Put Up for Adoption.
Many times the children were inspected like they were livestock. Muscles were felt. Teeth were checked. Sometimes the children would sing or dance trying to attract the attention of new mothers and fathers. It was frightening to have complete strangers looking them over and touching them. If they were lucky, someone chose them. Papers were signed and they went home with their new parents. While a local committee made sure that the new parents were fit to be parents, it was not much of an inspection compared to today.
One of the saddest parts of this procedure was often the new parents could not take more than one child. If brothers and sisters were lucky, they were taken by families in the same area so they could visit. If they were not lucky, brother, or sister, would get back on the train without them and go many miles further down the track. It was not uncommon for brothers and sisters to lose track of each other completely.
The Children’s Aid Society also established annual reviews of the adoptions to make sure the children were being cared for and everyone was satisfied with the arrangement. They developed a contract between the Society and the prospective parents which stipulated the children were to be fed, clothed, treated as family members (meaning living in the home, not the barn), would be given  spiritual training and taken to school.
It also stipulated the process by which a child could be returned if proven unsatisfactory. If the child needed to be removed from a home, it was at the expense of the Society, not the adoptive parents.
For the most part, the Orphan Trains were a better alternative to existing conditions in New York City where children lived on the streets foraging for food. There would be plentiful food with pure air to breathe and chores that developed a good work ethic. The farms and towns across the country offered the opportunity for food, parents and safety. School was to be continued so they could grow up with a general education and be able to become mature, productive Americans. The system provided many with loving homes and families.
So was it a good thing? It was better than the alternative.
The Orphan Train Movement was the beginning of children’s rights: child labor laws, child protection laws, school lunches, medical care – and the beginning of America’s welfare system.
The Children’s Aid Society continued to find homes for children until the early 1930s. Several factors shut down the movement: the beginning of the Great Depression when families couldn’t afford “another mouth to feed,” new laws and programs being instituted to help these children, and – most significantly – the growing number of state legislatures passing laws restricting or outlawing the interstate placement of children.
References: The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline,,


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