Orphan Train

Orphan Train

The Orphan Train was a social experiment that transported children from crowded coastal cities of the United States to the country's Midwest for adoption. The orphan trains ran between 1854 and 1929, relocating an estimated 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. At the time the orphan train movement began, it was estimated that 30,000 vagrant children were living on the streets of New York City.

Two charity institutions, The Children's Aid Society (established by Charles Loring Brace) and The New York Foundling Hospital, determined to help these children. The two institutions developed a program that placed homeless city children into homes throughout the country. The children were transported to their new homes on trains which were eventually labeled “orphan trains.” This period of mass relocation of children in the United States is widely recognized as the beginning of documented foster care in America.



Brace believed that institutional care stunted and destroyed children. In his view, only work, education and a strong family life could help them develop into self-reliant citizens. Brace knew that American pioneers could use help settling the American West, so he arranged to send the orphaned children to pioneer families. "In every American community, especially in a Western one, there are many spare places at the table of life," Brace wrote. "They have enough for themselves and the stranger too."[1] When the movement began, it was estimated that 30,000 orphaned or abandoned children were living on the streets of New York City.[2] Many were sent west to find families and new homes, on trains that became known as "orphan trains". Sometimes there would be 30 to 40 young children riding with two or three adults.[3] The children ranged from newborn babies to older teenagers. Conditions on the early trains were poor, little better than cattle cars.[3] In later years, conditions improved.

The children were encouraged to break completely with their past. The children would typically arrive in a town where local community leaders had assembled interested townspeople. The children would usually be put up on a "stage like" podium for viewing and inspection. The townspeople would inspect the children, perhaps feeling muscles and checking teeth, and after a brief interviews take the chosen ones home.[3] Children might sing or dance to attract interest. Sadly, many siblings were separated during this process because the parents were only allowed to take one child.[3] After a trial period, some children became indentured servants to their host families, while most were adopted, formally or informally, as family members.

Between 1854 and 1929, more than 200,000 children rode the “Orphan Train” to new lives. The Orphan Train Heritage Society maintains an archive of riders' stories. The National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas maintains records and also houses a research facility.

Two famous former orphan train riders are Governor John Green Brady of Alaska, and Governor Andrew Burke of North Dakota.

Program reception

The program was not without criticism. In its early days some abolitionists viewed it as a form of slavery, while some pro-slavery advocates saw it as part of the abolitionist movement, since the labor provided by the children helped to make slaves unnecessary.

National Orphan Train Complex

The National Orphan Train Complex dedication celebration

The National Orphan Train Complex, also known as the National Orphan Train Museum and Research Center, is located in Concordia, Kansas. The Museum and Research Center is dedicated to the preservation of the stories and artifacts of those who were part of the Orphan Train Movement from 1854-1929. The research center is located at the restored Union Pacific Railroad Depot in Concordia which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Services offered by the museum include rider research, educational material, and a collection of photos and other memorabilia.

Media references

  • Good Boy (Little Orphan at the Train), Norman Rockwell painting
  • Eddie Rode The Orphan Train, song by Jim Roll and covered by Jason Ringenberg
  • The Orphan Train (Take Us In), song by U. Utah (Bruce) Phillips
  • The Orphan Trains by Janet Graham and Edward Gray
  • [1] book " Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York" by Renee Wendinger
  • TOY STORY 3 opening scene at 01 02:00, depicting impending Western Railroad train disaster rescue scene. Three passenger cars are shown filled with Troll dolls hanging out the windows: Jessie: "Oh, no!" Woody: "The orphans!" Heavenly choir: "Aaaah!"

See also


External links

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