iGive to UNTAMED SPIRIT Therapeutic Riding & Educational Program

Daisypath Wedding tickers

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

O is for Orphan Train

During the 1850's there were approximately 30,000 homeless, orphaned, abandoned children roaming the streets of New York City. These children ranged in age from about 3 to 14 years of age.  They begged, stole and scrambled each day to feed themselves, to find a place to lay down and sleep.  What it must have been like on the streets of NYC during the winter months makes me shudder.  Even in the relative comfort of warmer weather, the streets were dangerous places to roam at night. 

These poor children were viewed as a 'problem' for society. Often, I wonder if anyone ever gave a thought to the childrens' 'problem' of being hungry, cold,  homeless,frightened, unloved. 

The Newsies (boys who sold papers, earning little more than enough for a meal and enough to buy the next day's papers) were luckier than most.  Banding together, they had little 'family' groups of their own, for protection, for survival, perhaps even to feel part of a 'family' of sorts.

But, what happened to the thousands and thousands of other 'street urchins' that resorted to begging in the streets, stealing, pick pocketing, and, doing things that no one, child or adult should ever be reduced to?

A young minister, Charles L. Brace, founded the Children's Aid Society, proposing that these children could be saved from a life of degradation, disease, death.   By taking them out of the environment they were in and placing them in good wholesome families, it would be possible to give them a 'second chance'.


There were families all around the midwest and west that were interested in taking in a child.  Placement was free, with the understanding the child was to be brought up in a God fearing home, fed, clothed, and sent to school.  Loving them? Well, that was implied, but not necessarily required.

This became to basis for what is considered the beginning of the 'foster care' system in the US.  The program was known as 'The Orphan Train' Project.  Through the work of church and women's groups, the children were taken into care, given clean clothes and shoes, made presentable and readied for a journey across country on a train that would stop at designated spots along the way.  There the children would be lined up, youngest to oldest, and the residents of the town would inspect them.  A young child (3 or younger) were usually picked quickly, as were the older boys.  The babies because they were young and could be raised as the couple's own.  The older boys? Well,  they would be an extra pair of hands on the farm.  Cheap labor. Next came girls who were presentable, but not too pretty.  They would be another pair of hands to  lighten the load of endless housework.

What happened if a child wasn't chosen?  They  got back on the train, and rode to the next stop and went through the process again.  Some, who were not chosen, eventually ended up back at the Children's Aid Society orphanages in NYC.

As with any situation, some children were picked by good and loving people.  They were taken into the homes of a family that wanted them for themselves, and not a free source of labor.  Many opponents of the Orphan Train system likened the project to 'indentured servitude'.  Sadly, there are many, too many, stories of cihldren who were placed in a home only to be rejected again.  The child would then find themselves placed somewhere else, to  start all over. Often, being placed again and again, until finally, they would run away. 

During the years 1854 - 1929 some 250,000 children (that's a quarter of a million!!!) were placed in care through the Orphan Train program.  Some children were blessed to be placed with families that adopted them and made them their own.  Some were given food, shelter, an education, but, always there was the knowledge they were not family.  Some were abused, neglected, made to work from morning till night. Many ran away - some ran away from the unkindness they found. Some ran away hoping to go back to their lives before.   Many children, grateful and relieved to find a home, expressed the same sentiment - they would give it all up if they could only see their mothers again.

The PBS American Experience program about the Orphan Train is a wonderful way to learn more about the children.   There is also a organization made up of people who were part of the program.  The links for both of these are here  -



Many books have been written about the subject. One, recently, was 'Orphan Train' by Christina Baker Kline.   The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.

This week's alphabe-Thursday is brought to you by the letter O and Jenny Matlock's wonderful group.  You can join us by clicking on the link to the right.


  1. I'm glad those children, if not all of them had been given some chance to lead a normal life even if it's hard labor. it's sad to hear about such history but at least some good came out of it.

    thanks for posting this. hope you have a sweet day.

  2. Thoughtful "O" post, and very informative.

  3. I really didn't know about the orphan trains. Thank you for sharing this post with me.

  4. What a very touching post ! It was certainly the same in Europe. In the UK children had to work in mines from 4 or 5 years old ! Terrible !Fortunately it has changed, but still there is a lot to do !

  5. What an interesting post...so sad for the children that it did not work out for and amazing in the sheer multitude of them that needed homes. I did not know about this until your article!.

  6. Very informative and historical post for O ~ great photos ~ thanks, carol

  7. how so very sad...

    my heart aches for them, all of them...

  8. Oh my, I learned something today. I had heard of these children but didn't realize the magnitude. Thanks for the links -- very interesting. I'm going to check PBS and also look for that book.

  9. This is such a heart-wrenching period in our country's history. Why were there so many children orphaned in NYC? Had immigrants come over and died, far from supporting extended family?

  10. I knew about the book but had no idea it was based on history. My mouth hit the floor reading this.

  11. Thank you all for responding. I don't know why, but for some reason this event touched a place in my heart when I first saw the PBS special. Over the years I have read about the Orphan Trains a bit more. When I read this novel, I was left feeling like 100 years may have passed, but many things remain the same.

  12. Many people choose to ignore this type of problem even today. Downtown Denver is filled with runaway kids. It is so tragic and the worst thing is they get into so many bad situations. As a kid, I grew up with many orphans from the Bay of Pigs/Cuba Missile Crisis. They were housed in a local orphanage and although perhaps not ideal they were given solid educations at the Catholic schools and one young man in particular still lives and works in my hometown and raised his own family there. I have not read the book you shared here but I will now. I think the Orphan Train did the very best it could and it is sad many children were treated simply as cheap labor. As my late father would say, "Be thankful God is judge for all". Thank you for sharing this insightful story.

  13. I have read and seen some movies where the story line was written about children being taken in by those families in the west for their own, or as mere help for others. It is so hard to fathom that there were so many children that were left orphaned in the big cities, especially the very young ones. Thank you for sharing this and the photos too.

    Blessings & Aloha!

  14. It is really sad that some of our society saw these unfortunate children as a "problem"...

    It breaks my heart imagining the lives these orphans lived and the struggles they had to endure...

    The Orphan Trains seems like a turning point... Every child deserves to be loved and should be treated like the precious treasures they are!

    Thank you for linking such an enlightening post about a very important topic for the letter "O"!

    Outstanding job!