The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1854 and 1929, relocating about 250,000 children. The co-founders of the Orphan Train movement claimed that these children were orphaned, abandoned, abused, or homeless, but this was not always true. They were mostly the children of new immigrants and the children of the poor and destitute families living in these cities.
Three charitable institutions, Children’s Village (founded 1851 by 24 philanthropists), the Children’s Aid Society (established 1853 by Charles Loring Brace) and later, the New York Foundling Hospital, endeavored to help these children. The institutions were supported by wealthy donors and operated by professional staff. The three institutions developed a program that placed homeless, orphaned, and abandoned city children, who numbered an estimated 30,000 in New York City alone in the 1850s, in foster homes throughout the country. The children were transported to their new homes on trains that were labeled “orphan trains” or “baby trains”. This relocation of children ended in the 1920s with the beginning of organized foster care in America.
The phrase “orphan train” was first used in 1854 to describe the transportation of children from their home area via the railroad. However, the term “Orphan Train” was not widely used until long after the Orphan Train program had ended.
The Children’s Aid Society referred to its relevant division first as the Emigration Department, then as the Home-Finding Department, and finally, as the Department of Foster Care. Later, the New York Foundling Hospital sent out what it called “baby” or “mercy” trains.
Organizations and families generally used the terms “family placement” or “out-placement” (“out” to distinguish it from the placement of children “in” orphanages or asylums) to refer to orphan train passengers.
Widespread use of the term “orphan train” may date to 1978, when CBS aired a fictional miniseries entitled The Orphan Trains. One reason the term was not used by placement agencies was that less than half of the children who rode the trains were in fact orphans, and as many as 25 percent had two living parents. Children with both parents living ended up on the trains — or in orphanages — because their families did not have the money or desire to raise them or because they had been abused or abandoned or had run away. And many teenage boys and girls went to orphan train sponsoring organizations simply in search of work or a free ticket out of the city.
The term “orphan trains” is also misleading because a substantial number of the placed-out children didn’t take the railroad to their new homes and some didn’t even travel very far. The state that received the greatest number of children (nearly one-third of the total) was New York. Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania also received substantial numbers of children. For most of the orphan train era, the Children’s Aid Society bureaucracy made no distinction between local placements and even its most distant ones. They were all written up in the same record books and, on the whole, managed by the same people. Also, the same child might be placed one time in the West and the next time — if the first home did not work out — in New York City. The decision about where to place a child was made almost entirely on the basis of which alternative was most readily available at the moment the child needed help.
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