Someone to take us in
During the Gilded Age of the late 1800s the cities of the Northeast dealt with a tremendous influx of immigrants. The newcomers arrived by ships from Europe, but they also came from the rural South. They came for the opportunities and promise of a better life in the new textile mills, factories, and steel mills.
For some of the youngest, the big cities held neither promise nor opportunity. The orphanages and poor houses of cities like New York and Boston were overcrowded with “foundlings” and “street urchins”. Some where truly orphaned by the death of one or both parents, but many were “given up” by parents who could not care for or feed another mouth. Many more youngsters were turned loose or runaways who turned to the streets to fend for themselves. Some young street “orphans” sold matches, newspapers, or apples on the streets to survive, others banded together in gangs for support and protection.
In 1853, a young minister, Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society to help remedy the terrible plight of these “children of unhappy fortune.” Brace believed that they would fair much better in good homes in the country. He also knew that the farmers out west were in need of labor, and devised a way to solve both problems. Between 1854 and 1929, the Children’s Aid Society, and the like-minded New York Foundling Hospital, organized “Orphan Trains” to relocate “unwanted” children to more desirable locations.
On September 20, 1854, the first train left with 46 10-12 year old boys headed for Dowagiac, Michigan. Agents placed ads in local newspapers at stops along the way, well in advance of the train’s arrival. At each stop the children were lined up and displayed for prospective families. The Orphan Trains rolled west until all of the children had been “adopted”. Some have argued that the process was a thin disguise for a means to clean up the streets of New York, or to provide nothing more than indentured servents for the farmers, and in some cases I'm sure that is true, but for many children who found a home and family it was a blessing, and the begining of the foster care system in the United States. No one is sure how many children rode the Orphan Trains, but most sources agree that 150,000 is a conservative number, some estimates go as high as 500,000.
With the stock market crash and the beginning of the depression, few families could consider adding another mouth to feed, and the era of the Orphan Trains came to an end.
If you have ever wondered, as I once did, why there seems to be a strangely large number of songs from the turn of the 20th century about orphans, now you know.
As this song tells, not all the Orphan Trains were trains.
Futher reading: The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America by Marilyn Irvin Holt.