Orphan Trains

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Life in 19th century America was difficult. The very pathways of American life were changing from an agrarian past to an industrialized future. Such a drastic change was not without hardships, and they often fell hardest on the most vulnerable … in this case, the children we’re going to explore in this blog. The following paragraph is a bit long, but it’s a great explanation of what was happening, so please bear with me here.

In the early 1800s the United States began to change from a country in which most people lived with several generations of their family on farms, to an industrialized nation in which many people lived in cities where they knew no one. The invention of farm machinery meant that fewer workers were needed to work on farms. At the same time, thousands of workers were needed for the new factories being built in the cities. Too many people wanted the factory jobs, however, which kept the wages low. During the same period, hundreds of thousands of people came to the United States from other countries. These immigrants competed with farm workers for the factory jobs. There was not enough housing for everyone, and city landlords could charge high rents for places barely fit to live in. Many workers had large families and were jammed into tiny apartments that had to be shared with two or three other families. Some families even lived in cardboard boxes or in coal cellars. The people lucky enough to find factory jobs often worked in dangerous conditions. If they were hurt or killed, other workers were always ready to take their place. People often worked 10 to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Even so, many parents could barely feed and clothes themselves and their children. Children as young as 5 or 6 often labored long hours in factories to earn a few pennies a day. Others sold matches, shined shoes, peddled newspapers, picked coal, or ran errands—anything to make a little money. Children barely old enough to walk begged in the streets. Even when every member of a family worked, some families could not make enough money to survive. There was no welfare system. Some people starved to death. … Some parents were so upset at the birth of a child that they would abandon the newborn to a church or store, hoping someone would find and care for the baby. Others did not even make that effort, and every day the police would find the bodies of infants who had been left to die in rain barrels and trash cans. In other families the parents forced older children to leave to make space for a new baby, even if the children were only six or seven years old themselves. Homeless children slept on sidewalk heating grates, doorways, or empty buildings. They ate out of trash cans or stole food. Historians believe that in 1850, when New York City’s population was 500,000, as many as 30,000 homeless children roamed the streets. At that time the law treated children who were seven or older as adults, so the jails were often full of youngsters who had been caught stealing. Children of 12 or older could be put to death for that crime. Their punishment was carried out at public hangings that other street children would come to watch (Warren, Orphan Train Rider, pgs. 14-17).

Children living on the street in 19th century New York. Source: https://bit.ly/2YupayF

Into this hell on earth came Charles Loring Brace. To be clear, he’s certainly not the only person who worked to alleviate this misery, nor were his efforts without problems, but he is the instrument for the efforts discussed here. Born into a comfortable family in Hartford, CT in 1826, Brace graduated from Yale, then Yale Divinity School and the Union Theological Seminary. After graduation he went to work in the Five Points Mission in New York City. His experiences there led him to establish the New York Children’s Aid Society (CAS) in 1853. In the past, family or neighbors took in orphans, but here that was not possible. Orphanages were available (although often Dickensian), so Brace believed that the only way to help these children was to remove them from their situations entirely. And where to send them? Why, to farms, out west! Brace, like many of his contemporaries, greatly romanticized the agrarian past.

Charles Loring Brace, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/3tkWrrv

Despite the demands of rural life, particularly on the expanding frontier, agricultural society on the whole presented to the nation “a poetic idea that defined the promise of American life.” The frontier farmer was idealized, and it was held to be true that life in the west fostered independence and self-reliance. Americans were told and wanted to believe that there was a place where “family name cuts but little figure. It’s the character of the man that wins recognition.” Agrarian society, romanticized as classless, was believed to allow an individual to seek his or her own fortunes based on personal abilities and talents—to rise as Alger’s fictional characters did, by their tenacity. It was the perfect setting for the urban poor to begin over and reach their potential. This romanticization of the pastoral life was an extension of America’s westward movement. Always there had been some who reached to the edges of the settlement and beyond. Under Jefferson, exploration of the vast continent has taken place, and with Jacksonian democracy the ownership of property was declared the right of free men. By mid-century the idealization of rural America reflected expansion as well as changes brought by industrialization. Growth and manufacturing may have been seen as the natural progression of things, but the financial benefits were offset by an increasing urban population, an influx of immigrants as laborers, and a litany of social ills created by industry and urbanization. Some wondered at the outcome and reflected on the more rural America of the past—the villages, the hamlets, the honest yeoman (Holt, pgs. 20-21).

A group outside of the Children's Aid Society's central office in New York City. The children hold satchels with their belongings as they prepare to travel west, c. 1895. Source: https://bit.ly/3zUbquO
A group outside of the Children’s Aid Society’s central office in New York City. The children hold satchels with their belongings as they prepare to travel west, c. 1895. Source: https://bit.ly/3zUbquO

Brace said, “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 surroundings and to send them away to kind Christian homes in the country.” Fully buying into the mythos of the pioneer life, Brace believed “that the American pioneers who were settling the West could use help, and felt that an arrangement that would place children within these families would be mutually beneficial. He thought that the farmers in the West would welcome the children, take them in, and treat them as their own. Therefore, he arranged to send the orphaned children to pioneer families. The Orphan Trains and the practice of “placing children out” into homes that would accept them was the precursor to the modern foster care system in the United States.”

Advertisement for an orphan train coming to Cadiz, KY. Source: https://bit.ly/3zVQVxZ
Another orphan train announcement, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/3jOIyP6

Here’s how this worked: a group of children were gathered and put aboard a train with one or two guardians. Depending upon their ages and circumstances, the children may not have fully understood what was happening. Some were genuine orphans, some were not. One little girl, when told she was going to Texas, remembered saying that she was not an orphan, that her mother was alive and in a hospital. No matter … she was going to Texas. Siblings sometimes stayed together, but far more often they did not. Before the train departed, CAS agents scouted for locations were children were likely to be welcomed. Publicity alerted the townsfolk of the impending arrival. Before arrival, the agent found/was supposed to find local people to solicit and vet potential adopters. When they arrived at their destination, the children were cleaned up and then taken to the meeting venue and placed in front of the crowd. They were encouraged to sing, recite a poem, or otherwise make themselves appealing. After the event was over, any “leftover” children rode to the next stop and went through the same process all over again. The whole process was appallingly casual. Paperwork was not required. Adoption was encouraged, but again, not required. Both parties (the children and the “families”) had the right to back out of the agreement; some children rejected the first person who “chose” them and this seems to have been permitted. CAS was to check in on the children regularly to see how things were going. Some children were fortunate enough to go to families that did adopt them, that loved them, formed a bond with them, and raised them as their own children. Others became little more than hired hands or indentured servants. Much faith was placed in the goodwill and character of the adopters, faith that was not always rewarded. The story of Stanley Cornell serves as a good illustration of both the perils and successes of the program. He had a younger brother and sister. Their father was exposed to mustard gas during World War I and struggled with health problems. Their mother died of tuberculosis when the children were young. Their father was unable to take care of his children; fortunately a family member adopted the daughter, but Stanley and his brother ended up on an orphan train. Miraculously the boys stayed together, but they went through 6 or 7 homes before ending up with a family in Texas. This Texas family turned out to be “the one,” and Stanley and his brother Vic had a great life, and as an adult, Stanley was able to reunite with his father and sister. Watch this short 2015 video, “An Orphan Train Rider Tells His Story”, to hear the full story.

CAS was not the only group that utilized orphan trains. The New York Foundling Asylum/Hospital, a Catholic charity, also placed children aboard trains, but in its case, sent mostly babies or children less than 5 years of age. For that reason, these were sometimes known as baby trains, or mercy trains. The first CAS train in 1854 was sent to Dowagiac, MI; by the time the program ended in 1929 some 250,000 children were orphan train riders. Some orphan trains came to Indiana, and while I don’t know that any came to Evansville, I do know that some Evansville orphans were housed in orphanages. One of the first was the Children’s Guardian Home at 507 Lincoln Avenue, built in the 1850s as a county facility. After it closed in the 1930s, children were transferred to another facility. This building served as the initial home for the Carver Center; it burned down in 1972 after sitting vacant for 2 years.

Guardian Home, c. 1916. Source: UASC, RH 033-151.

Below is what was originally the home of Dr. John Laval, built before 1849 at the west end of Indiana Street. It became an orphanage in 1872 and was initially integrated. In 1883, city and country government split and this became the orphanage for white children. This was razed in 1952 and replaced with what is today called Hillcrest Youth Services, at 2700 West Indiana Street.

White Orphan Asylum, post segregation, c. 1883. Source: UASC, RH 033-082.

Until 1883, orphans of all races lived together. When they were segregated, this facility, the Colored Orphan Asylum at 1215 North Barker Avenue, was built. It was also known as the Booker T. Washington Home. In 1952, this house was razed and what is today called Hillcrest Youth Services, at 2700 West Indiana Street. was built, with integrated housing once again. It is integrated now, although it probably was not in 1952.

Colored Orphan Asylum, c. 1883. Source: UASC, RH 033-084.

Today attitudes and laws have changed. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 prohibits children younger than 14 from working, although this provision is applied lightly when it comes to agriculture. Certainly no child of 12 would be hung for stealing. And adulthood, in legal terms, begins at 18, not age 7 or 8. Having children “sell” themselves to potential adopters smacks of slave auctions and would not be tolerated by current social mores. Any massive effort like the orphan trains, to place over a quarter million children in homes, would face such overwhelming paperwork and legal challenges that it would never get off the ground. That’s a good thing, but still, it’s unfair to judge 1800s behavior by today’s standards, at least not wholly. Brace’s orphan trains were a flawed attempt that grew out of a genuine desire to help children. We can learn about something without condoning it. That’s the beauty of history.

Orphan train stopped in Kansas, 1900. Source: https://bit.ly/3zQWkq7

References Consulted

Blakemore, Erin. ‘Orphan Trains’ Brought Homeless NYC Children to Work On Farms Out West. History Channel, April 9, 2019.

Brown, Angelique. Orphan Trains (1854 – 1929). VCU Libraries Social Welfare History Project, 2011.

Chiodo JJ, Meliza E. Orphan Trains: Teaching about an Early Twentieth-Century Social Experiment. Social Studies. 2014;105(3):145-157.

Grossman, Ron. “The orphan train: A noble idea that went off the rails.” Chicago Tribune, July 19, 2018.

Holt, Marilyn Irvin. The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. Rice Library, General Collection: HV 985.H65 1992

Kidder, Clark. “America’s Orphan Train.” History Magazine (Toronto) 16.6 (2015): 22. Web.

National Orphan Train Complex. Concordia, KS

O’Connor, Stephen. Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Rice Library, General Collection HV985.O36 2001

“The Orphan Train Movement”—9 video clips from the West by Orphan Train documentary. PBS LearningMedia

“The Orphan Trains.” The American Experience, PBS, aired November 27, 1995.

Warren, Andrea. Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Rice Library, CMC: HV985.W37 1996

Warren, Andrea. “The Orphan Train.” Washington Post, 1998.

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