In 1840 the population of New York City was just over 300 thousand. By 1920 the population of the city had grown to over 5 ½ million, and yet the size of the city itself remained the same. With the great influx of people, the infrastructure of the city proved inadequate. Families were crammed into tenement buildings. In many cases multiple families sharing units designed to house a single family.
The sewer and trash systems proved inadequate and because child labor laws were nonexistent men and boys were competing for the same jobs. With too many mouths to feed children were often pushed from the family home and wound up living on the streets.
By the mid-1850’s New York City had over 30 thousand children living on the streets, many of them as young as four and five years old. With so many children living on the streets, people soon became sensitized to them, walking over them much the way one would walk over a sleeping dog. Instead of being sympathetic, people would turn up their noses at the way children looked and smelled. Children would sleep in doorways, in boxes and crates. In the wintertime, children would sleep on the vents in the city streets just to stay warm.
The children were in desperate need for an advocate, and that advocate came by way of Charles Loring Brace. Brace came from a well to do family with high social status. Arriving in New York in 1848 brace was appalled not only by the number of children living on the street but with the way society treated them. Brace made it his mission to help the city’s homeless children. He reached out to his high society friends, and using monies donated, founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853. The Children’s Aid Society offered the children religious guidance and helped to teach the boys trades which they could use to help support themselves in an attempt to help the children become self-sufficient. While the Children’s Aid Society’ efforts helped, it could not keep up with the number of children which were abandoned on a daily basis. Looking for a more permanent solution, Brace thought to send the children out to stable farms where he envisioned families rich morels and food in abundance.
The children’s Aid Society started the “family placement” or “outplacement” program in 1854 sending out its first group of children via two boats and two trains to Dowagiac Michigan. The placements proved a success and the program took off. The Orphan Trains (as they were later called) ran from 1854 to 1929. During the seventy-five-year period, it is estimated that over 250K children from New York and Boston rode the trains.
Agents from the Children’s Aid Society went forward in advance of the trains help the towns select committees to help see to the children’s placement. Prospective parents did not have to adopt the child. However, they were made to sign a contract stating they would feed and clothe the child and see to religious training. The child was also expected to receive some education. The families were told that if for any reason the placement did not work out the children could be returned at the agency’s expense.
It was the mission of all agencies to find good homes with people with strong morals. That is not to say that every home was a good home. As we all know while a home can have a Norman Rockwell Feel, no one knows what really goes on behind closed doors. Some children ended up with great homes with loving families, and others ended up being used as labor. While some children were worse off than before they rode the orphan trains, most of the children were much better off than if they would have stayed in the city. It is estimated that 87% of the placements turned out well.
#theorphantrains #homelesschildren #orphantrain #OrphanTrainSaga #homesforchildren #TheOrphanTrainSaga