Between 250,000 and 350,000 orphan children were transported from New York City across the United States on trains and on Intercoastal and Great Lakes ships between 1859 and 1929. The children were first transported by Methodist Minister Charles Loring Brace. In 1869, three Sisters of Charity founded the New York Foundling Hospital and also started to transport children from New York across the country. Over the decades, the Children’s Aid Society sent children to Protestant homes and the New York Foundling Hospital sent children to Catholic homes.
All of these children and their accompanying adults traveled on regularly scheduled passenger trains and ships. No special “orphan trains” ever existed.
The Children’s Aid Society – The program (the orphan train movement) started by Mr. Charles Loring Brace was called the New York Children’s Aid Society, and became active in 1859. Mr. Brace, for example, negotiated with the railroads to transport a child from New York to Missouri for $15.00 apiece. He was using 19thcentury train technology to develop his program.
The agents who escorted groups of children were called “Placing Out Agents.” For a time, these agents also sought yearly reports on child placements and/or helped with relocations when necessary. The Children’s Aid Society provided a half sheet of paper for an adoptive family to sign. The family was to provide meals, clothing, schooling and a trade for adult life.
The Children’s Aid Society would distribute posters at designated small town branch line locations. Child distribution took place at grange halls, armories, courthouse, churches, schools, train depot loading docks and other public gathering places.
The New York Foundling Hospital – The Sisters of Charity copied Rev. Brace’s use of railroads. The Sisters, however, rather than sending children into the unknowing west, took orders for children from far flung families through the local and regional Catholic Church administrative structure. The Sisters then filled the orders with children. In short, the Sisters almost always knew what family would actually receive which child before the child left New York City.
The Sisters also required each family to sign an indenture work agreement before receiving a child. As with the Children’s Aid Society little actual oversight occurred.
- The program started on the East Coast, to rid New York City of thousands of orphans and abandoned children. The few existing orphanages housing these children were subject to disease problems, funding shortages, etc.
- Prior to the railroads reaching Chicago and the later bridges across the Mississippi River, the trains distributed children in the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The first bridge across the Mississippi River was at Quincy, Illinois in 1868. Many trains came across the St. Louis Eads Bridge which opened in 1874.
- After 1874 the trains pushed farther west to new towns and farms where labor was scarce.
- St. Louis, Missouri’s Union Station, which is extremely large, was a common westward distribution center just across the Eads Bridge, and many orphan train children were distributed westward from this city.
Over the decades, children were sent to all 48 lower States and Territories. For an interesting perspective on where the children went, peruse this web site prepared by Creighton University student Maddy Cromidas.
- Originally, the children were taken directly from the streets of New York City as well as some from the later created New York City orphanages. Later, other orphanages throughout the Midwest also began to use trains to redistribute their orphans.
- In addition to orphans, very poor children, or children whose parents were unable to care for them, were sent west on the orphan trains.
- Children from new-born to 16 were eligible. Most often, children were sent west only after they became potty trained. Adults always accompanied the children sent west on the trains.
- Girls were often dressed in white dresses with large white hair bows. Boys were dressed in suits, some with short pants. Each child left New York City in new clothes and new shoes. They carried a cardboard suitcase which contained a second new set of clothes and nothing else. No dolls, toys or remembrances of their life in New York were allowed; they were starting a new life.
- Children were fed very simple but adequate meals on the trains.
- A CAS child could immediately leave the public distribution point with a new adult after the adult signed the half-sheet paper. The paper was placed in the CAS files in New York City. A NYFH child was met at the train station by her or his new family; the NYFH had sent a letter to the new family telling them where and when to meet the train carrying their new child. The NYFH required the news parents to sign a three page work indenture agreement at the train station before taking the child from the accompanying nun. The indenture agreement was filed in the NYFH files in New York City.
- The children were generally expected to work on farms and in domestic roles in small towns.
- These placements were meant to be permanent unlike foster families today. Very few were ever legally adopted although they usually took the sire-names of their new families.
- From 3 to 75 children traveled together on one train. These trains were sometimes called “baby trains.” The usual train trip lasted three days without stopping other than to change trains.
- The goal of both the Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital was that each child become a member of a family far from the evils of the city. Neither agency had any control over assigned jobs or family dynamics related to these children.
- Most of these children did not grow up in loving environments in their new homes. They were expected to work in exchange for food, lodging, clothing and schooling.
- Originally invented by the British exporting children off the streets of London and Liverpool to farms in South Africa (see British Home Children online) in the early 1800s, this eventual American saga became the largest migration and resettlement of just children in history of the world.
- The name “Orphan train children” is a name assigned by history. In early distribution posters, the children were called orphans or homeless children.
- Both the CAS and the NYFH retained most of their old records regarding these children. Although sparse, they still have those records today. There were few if any “official” government records kept of these children. Many recorded authentic stories of children are adult reports by former orphan train children, or summary write-ups by relatives. The history of the children is being compiled one story at a time.
- A 2-year-old in 1929 would be 93 years old today in 2020. There are very few alive in 2020.
- The social unrest in New York City over the export of these children led to the New York State Legislature banning the export of children out of the state in 1929 thus ending the orphan train saga. The retention of these children in New York stimulated the beginnings of the foster care system in America.
CURRENT RESOURCES FOR ORPHAN TRAIN QUESTIONS
The books I used to summarize this information are listed below:
- Holt, Marilyn Irwin.1992. The Orphan Trains: Placing out in The University of Nebraska Press.
- Patrick, Michael D. and Trickel, Evelyn Goodrich. 1977. Orphan Trains to Missouri. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press.
- Warren, Andrea. 1996. Orphan Train rider, One Boy’s Story. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Wendinger, Renee. 2009. Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York. Sleepy Eye, Minnesota: Legendary Publications.
- Resources for learning more about these children. (An upfront note. Do NOT attempt to contact the Children’s Aid Society or the New York Foundling regarding a specific child by text, phone or email. New York is and has always been a closed adoption state; the staff will simply not be able to help you. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or the National Orphan Train Complex for assistance contacting these agencies regarding individual orphan train riders.)A. The National Orphan Train Complex, Concordia, Kansas.
B. Orphantrainrail@outlook.com – please just email your request.
C. Renee Wendinger – theorphantrain.com.
D. The Louisiana Orphan Train Museum, Opelousas, Louisiana. Find this museum through your web browser.
E. New York Juvenile Asylum – https://newyorkjuvenileasylum.com/
I. The Children’s Aid Society of New York. Locate this agency through your web browser.
J. The New York Foundling. Locate this agency through your web browser.<