Last time I applauded the work of Jacob Riis, an early photojournalist who made the public aware of just how bad the slums of New York City were in the Nineteenth Century. When a friend said her book club had discussed the orphan trains which went to western states many years ago, I shot back that yes, I knew about them. I’d written a short Christmas story about the efforts of the Children’s Aid Society to move homeless “street Arabs” into lodging houses or to completely new locations.
I started looking at more details.
My story told about Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (anyone surprised?) taking his sons to visit the Newsboys’ Lodging House, which he and his minister friend Charles Loring Brace started. The men went weekly, encouraging the boys to work hard so they could become good citizens. Eventually there were several such homes in the city for boys and for girls. But the more ambitious program of the CAS was to “put faith in the kindness of strangers,” and move the children by rail to “Christian homes in the country.”
The trains carried needy children westward for 75 years, from 1855 to 1929. Three times a month, groups as small as six and as large as 150 boarded coaches or box cars with small suitcases and new changes of clothing. A card with a number was pinned on each child. Some placements had been arranged in advance, notably by the priests of the Foundlings Home. The trains stopped in Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, and eventually 40 other states.
Fortunate children had families waiting with a corresponding number. Other boys and girls were lined up on a stage to be surveyed by “kind Christian people” who had read advance handbills or newspaper notices. Of course I’m being sarcastic, because all the adults weren’t what Brace had hoped for. Some of the children remembered how farmers poked their muscles or looked at their teeth and passed them by.
Reminiscences from some of them late in life are tough to read.
It is no excuse to say that of the 150,000 children placed, some were bound to be in worse situations than others. We know that children were treated as indentured servants, doing farm work or housework. Some were beaten, mentally abused, or both. Agents followed up with visits, and supposedly the children had the opportunity to return to New York. Many ran away. Sometimes the parents of the host family died, and a new family agreed to take the child or children on. Siblings were separated. Sometimes children were shunned by schoolmates who knew they were illegitimate.
“They said I had bad blood. How could anyone have blood that is bad?” one lady remembered, many years later.
Some stories, though, met with Brace’s vision. How many is difficult to tell. “I have a father and a mother and brothers and sisters and they are kinder to me than my own ever were,” a girl named Anne wrote.
Another, Alice, said, “I got a chance to do what I was capable of doing, making something of myself.”
One man reflected in Guideposts many years later, in 1991. His first two placements were not successful, but the third was, with a devout family who treated him as their own. “I had found not one but two new fathers, and I could talk to both of them.“
Some of the children, reports the Children’s Aid Society, which is still active today, grew up to be very visible citizens. John Brady, taken in by an Indiana judge (who called John “the most uncompromising of the lot”), became governor of Alaska; Andrew Burke became governor of North Dakota. Others were businessmen, teachers, office workers, journalists, bankers, ministers, physicians, and members of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression.
Brace investigated disturbing reports in the 1880s, and found that some communities were not thorough in the screening process for host families. He died in 1890, the year How the Other Half Lives came out; the Children’s Aid Society continued to send children on the trains until 1929, when the government began foster care.
In his diary, Brace noted, “The human soul is difficult to interfere with. You hesitate how far to go.” A century and a half later, those truths still haunt us.
Some information in this post comes from “Orphan Trains” on PBS’s “American Experience,” and www.childrensaidsociety.org.