The Orphan Trains: End of the Line

Orph14The musical play Annie has charmed us all with adorable gangs of orphans happily dancing and singing, “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” But as charming as that scene is, and as much as we’d like to believe in its accuracy, it bears no resemblance to the reality of life in 19th and early 20th century America. In fact, if Little Orphan Annie had been an actual New York City orphan, there’s a good chance she would have been loaded onto a train and sent to live with strangers on a farm in Kansas, or some other Western location. If you don’t know about the American social welfare program of 1859-1929 known as The Orphan Trains, then pack your suitcase, grab your traveling hat and come along for an eye-opening ride!

Wrong Side of the Track

orph2In 1850, an estimated 30,000 homeless children lived on the streets of New York City. The city’s entire population was only about 500,000, so the number of homeless children was disproportionately high. Some children were orphans. Some were simply neglected or abused runaways. And some just had the misfortune of being dirt poor. Even in their great numbers, the children might not have gained much attention if they hadn’t started forming their own brand of junior street gangs. The children, who often worked long hours selling newspapers or rags, joined together as a means of protection and to create their own special kind of family life.

Orph20New York police officers were none too happy about the mini-vagrants. Since there were no real child welfare systems yet in place, the official solution was preposterous: Children were arrested and put in jail, right alongside adult inmates. Some of those “desperate criminals” were as young as five-years-old.

Orph3In case you’re wondering why the bands of ragamuffins weren’t sent to orphanages, that’s because there were only about 24 orphanages in New York City at this time. They couldn’t begin to deal with the overwhelming number of homeless children. Often, a parent-less child would be taken in by neighbors or relatives, but if not, the children who fell through the rather sizable cracks in the “system” were on their own. And with the number of recent immigrants finding their American dream to be more of a nightmare, the streets were often filled with children.

Train of Thought

Orph22It was obvious that someone needed to do something, but no one knew quite what to do. Then, in 1853, a young minister by the name of Charles Loring Brace had a radical idea: Get kids off of the streets, and out of sub-par orphan asylums, and place them with families who wanted more children. Brace, a Yale graduate and Connecticut native, was studying theology in New York City when he founded the Children’s Aid Society, with the goal of implementing his plan.

Orph24Brace figured that there weren’t enough potential homes for children in New York, so the children needed to be sent elsewhere. It was also common knowledge that farmers tended to have a lot of children, in order to have more hands to help on the farm. What if some of the orphans could go to the farmers as sort of ready made farm hands? Brace reasoned that the children would be in healthier environments. They would be provided with food, clothing, shelter, and families, and so would be far better off.

Brace wrote, “The best of all asylums for the outcast child is the farmer’s home. The great duty is to get these children of unhappy fortune utterly out of their surrounding and to send them away to kind Christian homes in the country.” He felt that living on farms would help the children grow into responsible adults, who wouldn’t be dependent on charity.

Orph15Make no mistake, this was never an adoption program. This was, for all intents and purposes, America’s original foster care system. Brace was a man who believed in the inherent goodness of mankind and the kindness of strangers. He thought it should be simple enough to match children with families. He already had the children! All he needed was the families willing to take on the care of a child. So, fliers were posted throughout the West and Midwest, announcing when a train filled with orphans would be making a stop.

On the Right Track?

Charles Brace hit the fundraising circuit to promote his Emigration Plan, now known as “The Orphan Trains.” Mrs. John Astor donated the first $50 and other wealthy New York families followed suit. Some philanthropists sponsored entire trainloads of children.

For children whose parents were still living, Brace had to locate the parents and get written permission to send to children westward. Once all of the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed, it was time to prepare the children for their journeys. That preparation wasn’t a long drawn out process. The kids were bathed, deloused, dressed in new clothes and herded to the train station. There were no emotional counseling sessions. There was simply the firmly held belief that whatever those children were being sent to was better than whatever they were leaving behind. The children themselves often had no idea what was happening. They only knew they were going on an adventure.Orph5

Full Steam Ahead

Some placements were prearranged, but most were not. It was sort of like showing up to a pet adoption day at Petco. The Children’s Aid Society asked each town to form a screening committee before the train arrived. These almost exclusively male committees were typically made up of a local doctor, a pastor, a newspaper editor, a merchant, and possibly a teacher. The committee, along with the agent traveling with the children, approved the final placements.

Orph13After arriving at each destination, the children were displayed while onlookers gaped at them. Just like the cute puppies and well trained dogs are the first to be adopted at Petco, the cuter youngsters and more capable looking children were the first to be snatched up.  Many rural people viewed the orphan train children with suspicion, as incorrigible offspring of drunkards and prostitutes. The children spoke with the accents of Ireland, Germany and Italy. Unlike most Mid-westerners, many were Catholic. One official said, “What was good for New York was very bad for the West.”

Orph6Children traveled in groups of ten to forty, with at least one agent supervising their trip. There are stories of children having prospective foster parents look in their mouths, as if examining a horse for purchase. Some people were very open about the fact that they were only looking for a suitable farmhand or someone to perform housework. Other people were looking for a child to love and nurture. It was the luck of the draw.

Orph17The Orphan Trains produced some happy endings and some grisly tales of abuse. Some children were fully accepted into loving homes. There were some instances in which children were legally adopted, and some instances in which they assumed the family name, even if there was no legal adoption.

Orph7There were some success stories, like those of street boys Andrew Burke and John Brady who grew up to become governors of North Dakota and of Alaska, respectively. But the record of placements was mixed. There was a good deal of evidence of abuse by foster parents. Many of the older boys simply ran away; some children were completely rejected by their new parents.  Some children drifted from farm to farm. Some even made their way back to New York. There were stories of children landing in reform school in Michigan; from Indiana, rumors of children on the dole. A southerner named J. H. Mills claimed that “men needing labor, their slaves being set free, take these boys and treat them as slaves.”

Even those kids for whom the journey ultimately was a triumph found the transition from one life to another painful and confusing. “I would give a hundred worlds like this,” wrote one child from her new comfortable home, “if I could see my mother.” Many children wrote of their fear that they’d be forgotten.

Charles Brace himself grappled with the dilemma: “When a child of the streets stands before you in rags, with a tear-stained face, you cannot easily forget him. And yet, you are perplexed what to do. The human soul is difficult to interfere with. You hesitate how far you should go.”

Sans Comic

Orph9Little Orphan Annie, the comic strip, made its debut in the New York Daily News in 1924, toward the end of the Orphan Trains’ run. But the comic strip took its name from the 1885 poem, “Little Orphant Annie,” by James Whitcomb Riley. There is no Daddy Warbucks in the poem, no great benefactor to buy the child a bright red dress or pay for a home perm. Instead, the poem speaks volumes about how orphans were viewed and treated. Here are the first few lines:

Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,

An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,

An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,

An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep

End of the Line

Orph1When Charles Brace died in 1890, he was acclaimed as one of the most influential reformers of the nineteenth century. But in the twentieth century, America’s vision of childhood was changing. The emphasis was shifting from children’s economic value to their emotional needs. America was coming to terms with the concept that one sure measure of the heart and soul of any society is how it treats its children. So on May 31st, 1929, the program came to a close. The last of the Orphan Trains delivered three boys to Sulfur Springs, Texas.

Between 1859 and 1929, the program placed an estimated 250,000 children into new homes in the U.S. and Canada. The National Orphan Train Museum in Concordia, Kansas is dedicated to remembering these children. They have amassed an archive of information about the Orphan Trains and the people who rode them. If you can’t pay a visit to the museum, you might at least like to visit their website, which has, among other things, some riveting, personal stories of Orphan Train riders.

You’ll enjoy this short video about the Orphan Trains!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia



8 Replies to “The Orphan Trains: End of the Line”

  1. Anita – Such a sad story. My godmother, who raised me, was in a Catholic orphanage here, in Maryland, with her sister. When they were 10 years old, the State paid families to take orphans into their homes to do housework or help with farm work. The fee paid to the families was in part to pay for the orphan’s clothes and to pay the family for the cost of keeping the orphan. These kids grew up not knowing what real family life was, and my godmother wound up raising her own three children after her husband left her, and she was very, very strict. Later in life she explained that the reason she was so strict was she was afraid if her children got in trouble they would be taken away from her and put in an orphanage. So even though she was taken in by other families, which was far from being ideal, her greatest bad memories were being in the orphanage. Your story was so enlightening, and makes one wonder why in today’s world people mistreat, abuse, and even kill their own children. Thanks for the story.

    1. Hi Pat, thanks so much for sharing that story with us. The early 20th Century was a struggle for so many people. The story of the Orphan Trains is a glimpse into our past, and it is one that makes us all a little uncomfortable, I think. What strikes me as most interesting about this story is that it all occurred so recently. We have come a very long way in our thinking and in our actions regarding child welfare these past 86 years!

    1. Hi Carole, yes I can well imagine how emotional those reunions were and are. I would love to attend one, and would love to hear their stories. Thanks for the kind words, glad that you enjoyed the story!

  2. As a child who was adopted in the 40s, along with another boy and girl who became my older brother and sister, I found this extremely saddening for the children, not just those who were mistreated but those who knew their parents and then most likely never saw them again.

    My adoptive grandfather, Edward R. McKeefer, who was born in 1871, became an indentured servant to a family in Athens, Ohio, and I am thinking he may have been an orphan train child, since we have not been able to find his parents and their genealogy. Thank you for the information regarding the Orphan Train Museum website. I am in hopes I will be able to find the missing information on him there.

    This was a very poignant story. Thank you so much for writing it.

    Sara McKeefer

    1. Hi Sara, your story has really drawn me in. After a quick search of historic railway systems in the US, I found that the B & O Railway had a station in Athens, and a route that connected it directly to New York City:
      I think that you might be right about your adoptive grandfather being an Orphan Train child. I hope that you can get more information from the Museum. I know how important it will be for you to make that connection, if possible. Best of luck, and if you could take a moment during your search to give us an update, we’d all love to hear more!

  3. Between 1947-1967 around 10,000 children were shipped from the UK to Australia to very uncertain futures. They were not all orphans, as in your story, but a mix of children from different circumstances. Many of were subject to terrible mental and sexual abuse by the Catholic Christian Brothers – here’s a link It cast a terrible shame on Australia, my home country, and the stories are still coming out now.

    1. Hi Kristy, thank you so much for sharing this with us. I had never heard of this before, and it is shocking because it has such a sinister edge to it. The British Government at that time identified these children as undesirable and shipped them off to hard labor and abuse to save the government money? And later efforts to right the wrong have been feeble? I am at a loss to understand how any God-fearing nation could have designed a program like this. I am terribly, terribly sorry to hear about it, but I am so glad that you are spreading the word.

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