With the influx of immigrants into New York city came poverty and sickness. Abandoned and orphaned children lived and died in the city streets. Children as young as five were forced out of their homes, getting jobs as newsies, flower sellers, shoe shiners. Children sold rags and picked pockets, many joining gangs just to survive. By the mid-1800’s it is estimated there were over 30,000 children living on the streets in New York City.
In 1853 a gentleman named Charles Loring Brace helped found the Children’s Aid Society, his mission, to get the orphans off the street. Other institutions followed but were still no match for the cities ever-growing street children population. A solution to that problem soon came by way of placing the children out, sending the children to farming communities where the children could thrive. This is where trains came into place, sending children from birth to 18 to less populated areas and place them with farmers who could always use a helping hand. The trains were called “Orphan Trains” or “Baby Trains.”
While the idea held some merit, the actual process was less than perfect. Though some children did end up in happy homes, countless children did not fare so well. In many cases, the new “parents” were referred to as employers. Long before child labor laws were in place, the children were expected to work in exchange for food, clothing, and education. Boys were picked based on their strength and ability to work; girls were chosen for their ability to become servants, caregivers, babysitters and more. With crowds gathered to view the new arrivals, the children were placed on display with prospective “parents” picking their child from the lineup. The children were inspected like livestock to determine if they were healthy. Before the train’s arrival children were instructed to sing, dance, show their muscles or demonstrate other talents to help them to get picked.
Some of the orphanages had another system and would send word to the towns in advance. People could then send a note to the orphanage telling of their request for a child with certain hair or eye coloring, age, religion. These children had numbers pinned to their clothing to let their new parent know which child now belonged to them.
Though the trains were referred to as “Orphan Trains” many of the children who rode them were not orphans at all. Many children were sent into the streets by parents who were too sick, poor or too ill-equipped to care for them. In the same token, many of the orphans in the orphanages or children’s homes had a parent or parents that would visit on occasion. Others were left at the doorstep never knowing why their parent abandoned them.
Though there were flaws in the system, in many cases the life the child lived was better than the one that was left behind. It is estimated that over 250,000 children rode the orphan trains during the placing out program which ran from 1854 to 1929. The first orphans were placed in Dowagiac, Michigan. Subsequent placements were made throughout the United States, even crossing over into Mexico and Canada. My goal is to write a series of historical fiction to help make people aware of the early placing out that was the forefront to many of the programs (foster care, child labor laws, background checks for adoption, to name a few) that we have in place today. #orphantrain