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'Orphan Trains' Brought Homeless NYC Children to Work On Farms Out West

January 28, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Begging. Blacking boots. Dodging angry, drunken adults. Living on the street. The 35 children who gathered at New York’s Children’s Aid Society in 1880 all had stories of deprivation and abuse to tell. Now, their ragged clothes had been stripped from them and replaced with sturdy new clothing and coats by aid workers. It was time for a long journey west.

“No mother’s tears were shed over the departing waifs,” wrote a reporter from the New York Daily Tribune, “no father’s counsel was given to the boys who were about to enter upon a new life.” That new life awaited them in Iowa, where they would arrive after a days-long train trip that swept them from urban New York to the rural Midwest. There, the Children’s Aid Society workers hoped, they would be adopted by families and put to work in fields and on farms.

They were part of what is now known as the orphan train movement, a sweeping attempt to protect homeless, poor and orphaned children in a time before social welfare or foster care. Organized by reformers in the Eastern United States, the program swept children westward in an attempt to both remove them from the squalor and poverty of the city and help provide labor for farms out west. Between 1854 and 1929, up to 200,000 children were placed on the trains and adopted by new families. But though many children did ride to better lives on orphan trains, others did not.

Orphan trains were the brainchild of Charles Loring Brace, a minister who was troubled by the large number of homeless and impoverished children in New York. A massive influx of new immigrants had crowded the city, and a series of financial panics and depressions in the late 19th century created unemployment. Meanwhile, cheap housing became harder to come by. As a result, tens of thousands of destitute children ended up on the street. Since there was no social safety net, there was no organized way to reach individual children or provide them with welfare or social services. Brace wanted to change that.

Characterized by Brace as belonging to the “dangerous classes,” these neglected children begged outright or performed small services like shining shoes and selling newspapers. They were often arrested for vagrancy or petty theft and thrown into prison along with adults. In an attempt to help them, Brace founded the …read more


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