A new home – but only if you work for it
By Andrew Parsons
It seems like the kind of half-baked idea straight off of an internet comment board: let’s round up all the orphan kids in New York City, put them on a train to the midwest and have them work on farms for families out there. But back in the 1850s, orphan trains were seen as a legitimate solution to the problem of thousands of homeless and orphaned children on the streets of New York.
Charles Loring Brace and his organization, the Children’s Aid Society, pioneered this idea in 1854, and other charities soon followed suit.
For seventy-five years, children were sent from eastern cities to farms in the midwest to find new homes. Eventually, over 200,000 children made the journey, before a mixture of child labor laws, a new foster care system and the beginning of Great Depression, made the program obsolete.
The point of these placements wasn’t adoption. Instead, adult guardians signed a contract that stated the children had to be clothed, fed and schooled – as well as paid for their work once they turned sixteen. An aid worker would check in every year to see how they were doing.
The program’s results were unsurprisingly mixed. Some of the children found loving homes. Take Art Smith. Smith was found in a basket in New York City’s Gimbels Department Store in January, 1918. The authorities estimated him to be just a month old at the time. Five years later, he hopped aboard a train headed west with nearly a dozen other young children to make the trip to the midwest to find a new home.
The journey was a great adventure, Smith recalled in a 2004 interview. Imagine what it’s like growing up almost entirely indoors in an urban orphanage, and then suddenly finding yourself on a moving train, staring out the window at the countryside, full of fields, cows and chickens.
“All these things were fascinating. And to discover for the first time that such things existed…”
His journey ended happily, too. He found a family that treated him like a son, and was certain that the life he found in Iowa was better than what he left behind in the big city. “When I say that the Children’s Aid Society rescued me, I think they did.”
Others weren’t so lucky. In 1911, a five-year-old Margaret Thompson rode the Orphan Train to Nebraska. In a 1993 interview with the Museum of the City of New York, she told of a guardian who asked her to call her “mommy,” but who also forced her to work nonstop in the house, and abused her both verbally and physically. When her case worker showed up each year, her guardian told her to lie and tell the case worker everything was fine. By the time she was eleven, the woman didn’t want her anymore. Thompson moved across the alley to live with the woman’s sister, and was sexually abused by that woman’s husband.
And there are many stories with both good and bad. In 1919, William Sagers made the trip from New York City to a new family in Iowa. But like Margaret Thompson’s guardian, they also gave him up a few years later. An elderly widow up the road took him in.
“Everything changed that day,” Sagers told reporter Annie Wu in 2004. He went from an indifferent home to a loving and nurturing one. But even in such a home, he couldn’t stop wondering what happened to the biological family he was separated from in New York.
Eighty-seven years after he rode the train to Iowa, he finally met his brother, who had stayed in New York. It took them so long to track each other down because Sagers’ last name had changed after he left the orphanage. It was a bittersweet reunion: his brother had lived a full and happy life in New York, but Sagers thought that in the end, his upbringing in the midwest, separated from his biological family, suited him best.
In the end, the legacy of the orphan trains remains a complex one. Certainly, not all of the children received the fresh start that life in the country was supposed to give them. Some may have been far better off in the cities they knew. What we have is a patchwork of personal memories – both good and bad -to remember the children who made the journey.
Thanks to Annie Wu, Renee Wendinger and Andrea Warren, who were gracious enough to share their tapes of orphan riders with us for this show – you’ll find links to their books and reporting on the subject below:
This is a excerpt from our show on child migration in America. You can hear more stories – including a first-hand account from refugees from the London Blitz, the story of children sent from Cuba to the United States to escape fears of communist indoctrination, and more on Little Feet: Children on the Move in America.