An Orphan Train in the 1800s

An Orphan Train
in the 1800s

What Were Orphan Trains?

On September 20, 1854, a train set out from New York bound for Dowagiac, Michigan. Aboard were 46  10-to-12 year old boys and girls heading for foster homes. It was the first of the phenomenon known as Orphan Trains. But what’s the story behind them?

Street Urchins

In the 1850s, 30,000 or more homeless, neglected, orphaned, unwanted and abandoned children roamed the streets of New York, in search of food, money, a place to stay. This is where the term “street urchins” was born. Some of them sold matches, newspapers, rags or anything they could find on the streets that might earn them a nickel. They ranged in age  from one-year-old infants to 17 years old youths. There were both male and female sexes. These were children of criminals, alcoholics, neglectful parents, who cared nothing for their child’s welfare, or they were orphans with no family to take care of them.

Street Families and Arrests

These youngsters often raised themselves by forming gangs to take the place of a family. They did this mainly to protect themselves from street violence and to feel they “belonged” somewhere. Illness ran rampant in these groups, including Typhoid Fever, Yellow Fever, Flu and other diseases. There was little to no hygiene practiced among them as they possessed nothing to do such things; lice, scabies and infection were common. Police, overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of these youngsters, often arrested and placed them behind bars with hardened criminals.

Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed

Charitable Organizations Get Involved

Charles Loring Brace, a New York Philanthropist, concerned about the welfare of these children, created an organization known as the Children’s Aid Society. That organization shared responsibility with The New York Foundling Hospital for providing clothing for the children, making travel arrangements and seeing that children arrived safely to their destination. These organizations were to follow up on each individual child, to insure that there was no abuse or ill treatment of the child. Many children were raised this way and most never saw their biological parents again. Some never even knew the names of their biological parents.

Wanted: Homes For Children flyer similar to those posted across the country

Wanted: Homes For Children flyer similar to those posted across the country

A Home To Encourage Independence

Until the time of the involvement of the two organizations, the only facilities for these children were orphan asylums and almshouses, neither of which were acceptable in Brace’s eyes. He felt they spawned dependence of the poor on charitable handouts and that children should be part of a home life that encouraged education, work, and jobs that contributed to their independence.

A Natural Choice: The West

The west and the multitude of pioneers moving there gave Brace the idea that it was a natural choice for placement of these children. He felt these hardworking people could use help in settling the untamed territory and that it would be a healthy life for young people. He made arrangements with families who farmed or ranched, those who were moving west for a better life away from the crowded eastern cities.

Accusations of Abuse and Overwork

It’s almost inevitable that there would be accusations of abuse and overwork of some of these children. Some homesteaders and farmers considered the children a source of cheap labor and had no intention of accepting them as members of their family. In addition, because of the nature of their scattered locations, many families never received a welfare visit. This gave them the sole authority over the child without the need to answer to any agency. Still, some were given a good home and grew up well educated and some even became prominent such as the Governor of North Dakota from 1891-1892, Andrew H. Burke, and Governor of the District of Alaska from 1897-1906, John G. Brady, both orphan train children. There were others, not as prominent, who grew up to be productive citizens who were grateful to the families that took them in.

The End of The Orphan Trains

The Orphan Train program ended in 1930, due to the hardships families were undergoing because of the Depression. Somewhere along the rails, a lesson was learned to find foster families in the city where the children came from. That program is in effect today, and with few exceptions, works pretty well. But questions about the orphan train program remain to this day.

There’s a National Orphan Train Complex located in Concordia, Kansas, dedicated to preserving the history and stories of the orphan train riders. Hours are variable so make sure to call before going, or go online to this website:  Kansas Sampler Foundation, or the National Orphan Train Complex

National Orphan Train Complex Museum Sign, Concordia, KS

National Orphan Train Complex Museum Sign, Concordia, KS


  • Were the parents notified before the child was put on a train and sent away from the city?
  • Is there any record of how many of those children died while in the home of another family?
  • Why weren’t the biological parents held accountable for their children?
  • Why weren’t better records kept, so that each child knew his or her last name and genealogical history?
  • Has every child who rode these orphan trains been accounted for today?