July/August 2011Vol. 12, No. 6Centennial Series: America's Orphan Trains
This is the third article in our Centennial Series, as we count down to the Children's Bureau's 100th anniversary next year. These articles address some of the social issues, practices, and policies at the turn of the last century that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Children's Bureau.
The story of America's orphan trains, which ran between 1854 and 1929, is rooted in the history of child protection in a rapidly changing urban society. By the mid-19th century, early industrialization and the promise of jobs drew more and more families to the cities—including large numbers of immigrants—but this rapid growth caused overcrowding, disease, and squalid living conditions for many. As urban poverty grew, so did the number of children who were lost, neglected, or simply abandoned. While exact numbers are difficult to determine, 10,000 or more vagrant children were roaming the streets of New York City by the late 1840s (Holt, 2009).
In 1853, concerned with the conditions of this vulnerable population, a young clergyman named Charles Loring Brace established the Children's Aid Society (CAS) in New York City. Soon after, the CAS began its program of shipping children via trains to new families in other parts of the country, mainly west. Brace felt that a rural family setting, steady work at home or in the field, and proper schooling would offer these children the opportunity to grow into productive members of society (Holt, 2009).
Who were the children sent to new homes on the orphan trains? They were of all ages, from infants to teens, and many were immigrants. Some were true orphans from inner-city orphanages or from the streets, but many were children of single parents or parents who were ill or otherwise unable to care for their children. Some parents brought their children to CAS, hoping for a better life for them, and other children were recruited from poor neighborhoods by the CAS (Cook, 1995).
The children were sent in groups on the trains, along with an agent who was responsible for seeing that they were placed with families. Stopping at a designated station, the youngsters were taken by the placing agent to a railway platform or gathering place and lined up to be looked over by prospective parents (Holt, 2009). Siblings were often separated; if a child was not chosen at a specific town, he or she would board the train again and move on to the next destination to repeat the process (Trammell, 2009). Families who took in the children signed an agreement to care for them, although legal custody often remained with the CAS or with the children's birth parents—an arrangement designed to provide an escape clause for both children and families (O'Connor, 2001).
Some children were fortunate, landing with families who treated them with kindness and love. Others were treated as unpaid labor or even abused. During the course of 75 years, about 200,000 children were relocated from the New York area to other States by way of the orphan trains (National Orphan Train Complex, n.d.). These included children settled by the CAS, as well as children settled by other "child-saving" organizations.
Inevitably, many contemporary events had an impact on the orphan train practice. Many of the Western States where the children were placed began to protest that they were being used to provide homes for children who were a burden to their home States, and these Western States began to pass legislation banning or requiring large bonds for interstate placement (Trammell, 2009). As the perception of childhood began to shift, children were seen as innocent and in need of protection rather than as prospective laborers. Social reformers emphasized the importance of family life versus institutionalized care. Years of national campaigns eventually led to the White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children of 1909 (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1967). This symposium was instrumental in bringing the issue of child welfare to national attention and in the creation of the Children's Bureau in 1912. The new government agency supported programs and initiatives that helped reduce the need for orphan trains.
Cook, J. (1995). A history of placing out: The orphan trains. Child Welfare, LXXIV, 181-197.
Holt, M. I. (2009). The orphan trains as an alternative to orphanages. In R. B. McKenzie (Ed.), Home away from home. The forgotten history of orphanages (pp. 205-226). New York, NY: Encounter Books.
National Orphan Train Complex, inc. (n.d.) Orphan Train History. Retrieved from www.orphantraindepot.com/OrphanTrainHistory.html
O’Connor, S. (2001). Orphan trains: The story of Charles Loring Brace and the children he saved and failed. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Trammell, R. S. (2009). Orphan train myths and legal reality. The Modern American, 5(2), 3-13. Retrieved from
U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Children's Bureau (1967). The story of the White House conferences on children and youth. Retrieved from Georgetown University, Maternal and Child Health Library website:
In addition to the references listed above, the Internet offers access to some of the history about this chapter in child welfare. For more information, visit these sites:
- The Children's Aid Society: The Orphan Trains
- National Orphan Train Complex, Inc.
- Orphan Train: A WI [Wisconsin] GenWeb Project
- Orphan Train: An IA [Iowa] GenWeb Special Project
- Orphan Train Riders of New York to Minnesota
- Orphan Trains of Kansas
Access all of the articles in the Centennial Series from here: http://cbexpress.acf.hhs.gov/index.cfm?event=website.viewArticles&issueid=125§ionid=1&articleid=3131