In the late 1800s, New York saw a brand new crisis: Too many children without parents. Some of these children were Europeans, whose parents flocked to America in search of a better life but couldn’t withstand the travel and died either on their journey or upon reaching their new home. Others were Americans, whose parents died in epidemics of typhoid, yellow fever, and the flu. Still others were removed from abusive homes. 

The result was staggering: An estimated 30,000 children in the 1850’s in New York City alone. Consequently, the orphanages of New York were overflowing. Conditions in the orphanages were poor, and children received little in the way of care. Not all children were placed in orphanages, though. Some were left to fend for themselves on the streets where they begged, stole, or formed gangs to survive.

Such was the scene when Charles Loring Brace (1826-1890) visited New York. A philanthropist from Connecticut, he believed that orphan asylums and almshouses merely deepened the dependence of the poor. He believed in teaching the poor to better their lives rather than to be dependent. His heart went out to these unfortunate children, though. In 1853, he founded the Children’s Aid Society. Along with the Children’s Village and the New York Foundling Hospital, he began the Orphan Train in 1854 to send these children to Christian homes out West where they could be adopted by loving families. 

Brace specifically intended for these children to be raised as part of a family and not used as an indentured servant. Posters were placed around towns where the trains were to stop. Sometimes the children were pre-ordered by couples; others were put on display for couples to adopt. Brace received discounts from the railroads for his charitable effort. The last Orphan Train left New York and reached its destination in Kansas City in 1929, shipping out more than 100,000 children during the whole operation.

Few records of the Orphan Train and the children survived. Due to the lack of records, some of these Orphan Train riders were never able to trace their family roots.

The Orphan Train is the subject of a few literary novels. A few examples include: The Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline, The Orphan Train by Steve Brigman, and The Dandelion Project by Maria Miller.

Feature image via YouTube/Jason Wilmot.