Orphan trains carried at-risk youth west

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kid on a train

The weather was mild for the month of May in New York City. Straddling the ribbon of rails that led to Chicago was an Erie Railroad train loading up prior to chugging west. The train consisted of a 4-4-0 engine with a coal-tender, a baggage car and four-passenger cars that accommodated 48 people.

Orphan train

One coach had a group of about 20 children accompanied by an adult chaperone from the New York Children’s Aid Society. The children were part of a program called “placing out” that began in the mid-19th century and was given the trendy name of “orphan train” in the early 20th century. It was one of many remedies trying to unravel the plight of poverty in the cities of America.

As cities of the United States grew in size in the 19th century, there was an increase in the number of orphans and homeless people who were living without proper food and adequate living accommodations. Those without wages or family support, regardless of age, often turned to unlawful acts of crime.

Society categorized the homeless and orphans as members of a dangerous group and a danger to those living in more comfortable surroundings. Society, especially in the more urban cities, responded by placing potential criminals in jail and operating grim orphanages. It was obvious to reformers that the situation was unbearable.

In the mid-19th century, a number of American charitable institutions, duplicating European practices, embarked on an impressive idea to remove the urban poor to the country’s rural fresh air areas. Most of those to be resettled were children.

Placing out

Nothing like this had been attempted before, but the idea seemed a necessary solution for dealing with a growing urban poverty problem. Called “placing out,” this form of emigration was a response to tremendous social pressures and demands in the cities to be rid of plight and the agricultural communities that need labor.

Charles Loring Brace was a philanthropist, missionary and a product of 19th-century values and New England ways. From a well-to-do family, he founded the New York Children’s Aid Society in 1853 and devoted most of his 64-year life to working with the poor, especially homeless children and orphans.

Brace originally tried to place children with families in New York and other close-by areas. This proved to be time-consuming and difficult for a variety of reasons.

Sent west

The idea emerged to send groups of orphans west by train to be placed with families who would provide a Christian home, feed, clothe, educate and help them learn a skill or trade. Christian charity and the responsibility of providing children with the tools for a religious life was an announced function of placing out. Bibles were provided to each child and family regardless of age or condition.

At 18, the individuals were released to make do for themselves with suitable clothing, a specified amount of money and a Bible. This was a reinvention of the system of indenture that had made it possible for many immigrants to come to America in the previous centuries.

Before each orphan train expedition, The Children’s Aid Society arranged, with a church minister or pastor in a western town, an agent who would receive the children at the railroad station and then introduce interested parties to the children for selection.

The individual railroads provided reduced rates for the children’s transportation. The children were scrubbed, given new clothing and a food basket and packed aboard a train to a town in the West. If not all children were settled at the first point, those not placed were moved further west. Children not selected were returned to the sponsoring organization.

First train

The first orphan train left New York City for Dowagiac, Michigan, Sept. 28, 1854, with 37 boys and girls ranging in age from 6 to 15. Over the years, the size of groups varied from 15 to 100. The last orphan train ran from New York City to Sulphur Springs, Texas, May 31, 1929.

There were other organizations in New York and Eastern cities that adopted the orphan train scheme. Between 1854 and 1929, a quarter of a million children were placed aboard the orphan trains, a little over 100,000 by the New York Children’s Aid Society alone. In the twilight years of the program, the majority of the placements went to places in Eastern states.

Not always successful

Despite the success of the program, little was done to improve street life and to reduce the cities of their destitute population. In a successful placement, the child became a part of the family, and many were legally adopted. When placements were unsuccessful, the unfortunate children were put in the hands of a cruel or indifferent family or were taken merely to provide cheap work.

As might have been expected, some youngsters did not fit into a rural setting or a small town. Some ran away from bad situations and found themselves in trouble with the law.

There were a number of problems associated with the program. One was the difficulty of taking children away from their biological parents, a factor that is anathema to current thinking of social work professionals.

Inadequate funding for the work of the agencies also was a problem in that it led to many difficulties, especially a lack of trained and capable staff. Other program flaws included renaming the children to avoid tracing by the natural parents or relatives and not attempting to match ethnic heritage or religious backgrounds.

Placing out came into being and was allowed to exist for specific purposes. Once those no longer served to support the system — once society had evolved in a different attitude toward social services and care of the poverty class — the system was discarded. Some states prohibited the placing out of children without some foster home or adoption control.

In the early 20th century, the orphan train continued to run for a few years, but relying on city or state care, foster care, adoption or maintaining children in the homes of parents became more fashionable. The reminders of placing out are still with us, and society still struggles with the problems of poor and homeless. Those who had used the West as a solution now fight the ills of urban life within the city itself.

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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.

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