The Orphan Train

The Orphan Train was a movement that started in 1854 by the New York Foundling Hospital and the Children's Aid Society. In 1872 the Foundling Hospital began sending children under the age four on the "baby train." The train placed orphans and homeless children, of an age range of six to 18, in new homes out West in rural communities. New York and other Eastern cities were filled with many destitute, neglected and orphaned children. The children either lived on the streets or were neglected or mistreated by caregivers. The purpose of the train was to give the children a better life where they did not have to struggle and could live a healthy life.

Police gathered children, along with parents or relatives willingly giving their child up and some children even came volunteering to ride the Orphan Train. Before the children set out to their new homes they were cleaned up. They were given new clothes and sometimes small suitcases. Once they were ready they were escorted by an Aid-Society employee and traveled in large groups. The train usually left Tuesdays in hopes of arriving in the west by the weekend.

The journey was about three to four days. The children were sent on trains without knowing their destination. On their journey the children slept either in their seat or the floor. When the children were near a stop they changed their clothes and washed their face. Girls wore new dresses, while boys wore white shirts, neckties and blazers. The children were urged to make a good impression. Locals at the stops read about the children in local newspapers and were encouraged to view the children. The goal of the Orphan Train was to help neglected and abandoned children from the European immigration and children in general in the 19th and 20th century. This movement lasted until 1929.

Before the Orphan Train

The orphans and homeless children came from the people who began leaving farms and moving to cities to work in factories, better known as the Industrial Revolution. Children also came from immigrants who came to the United States to work in factories. Many of the farmers and immigrants were the working poor. Two or three families lived in one small apartment because there was not enough housing and the rent was too high for the working poor to afford. There were very low wages and parents could barely afford clothes, food, or housing for their children and themselves. Because times were so hard, older children were sent out to live on their own and were expected to give whatever money they earned to their parents to help with finances.

Poor housing and working conditions frequently were the cause of deaths among the orphan and homeless children parents'. Many children who had lost their parents from smallpox or measles had no relatives and were left to fight for their own. In the mid-1800s about 3,000 children were homeless in New York and many of them were the children of the working poor and the deceased. The only places they could find shelter were in alleys, abandoned buildings and under stairways. The children who were not in overcrowded orphanages and were over the age seven were put in jail for stealing. Other children were taken from their parents or ran away because they were either mistreated or their parents could not take care of them.

Where they went

The main stops on the Orphan Train were Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. The Children's Aid Society was aware of the need of farm labor and made these states frequent stops on the Orphan Train. As time passed the Orphan Train altogether stopped in 45 states, placing out over 120,000 children. Riders were even sent to Canada and Mexico, but Indiana received the largest amount of children.

The Orphan Train story is one of immigration and westward expansion. The Orphan Train reflects population movement because during the 1900's people began settling in the west and north; the Orphan Train placed orphans out also in the west and the north. Because of racial discrimination many American blacks began to move from the south to urban cities in the north, such as Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. American blacks not only moved because of racial discrimination but because of employment opportunities. Also immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe settled in cities such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco. The Orphan Train is connected to the westward migration because the movement was placing people out in western and northern cities, such as Illinois, New York, California and Philadelphia just like the immigrants and the black Americans.

Orphan riders were selected by being assembled on stages, train platforms or town halls. Some families pre-selected the child they wanted with an order form based on their age, gender, hair and eye color. When the children were being viewed up on stage they were pulled, pushed and shoved by those looking to adapt. The placement of children with siblings was very emotional. Many families could not afford taking in more than one orphan rider. The children who had family back home lost contact with them when they were placed in new homes. The new parents were asked to treat the children as a member of their family. That required feeding, clothing and housing them, along with, sending them to school, church and Sunday school.

There was not a formal process of placing the children with families. Aid-Society agents oversaw and selected families for the riders that they thought were best the child. The placements were on a trial basis and did not require legal adoption. The children that were not selected returned to the train and continued on to the next city. Many of the children that were not selected had bewildered and rejected expressions on their faces. Some children felt lonely and unwanted as they traveled location to location.

The children that were selected had new homes that were farmhouses, cabins, sod houses or shopkeeper homes. The children were selected for many reasons. Many children were adopted by loving, nurturing and caring families. Others were just chosen to be farm laborers or domestic servants. Some were selected to replace deceased children or to look after the elderly. Those who were unhappy with their new homes ran away and moved from farm to farm, looking for shelter and work. Others were sent back to New York or made the best of their unhappy life until they were grown.

Many of the Orphan Train riders ended up leading pleasant lives. Many orphans adjusted to their new lives and grew up to be important citizens in their community. Some riders even went on to become governors, congressmen, sheriffs, district attorneys, and county commissioners. Riders also became bankers, lawyers, physicians, journalists, ministers, teachers and businessmen.

Rider's stories

Nettie and Nellie Crook, 1911 riders to Kansas

Nettie and Nellie were born identical twins in 1905. They were born a day apart, Nettie on January 23 and Nellie on January 24. Leon Crook was their older brother and they also had a younger sister. Mr and Mrs. Crook married and had children young. Mrs. Crook often left the family in upstate New York to visit her family in Vermont. Mr. Crook, also, was often away from home. He worked as a dredger on the Erie Canal for a while. The Crooks moved often. When the girls were little their younger sister died of an illness. During that time the family struggled as they mourned. "She was lying so still in her coffin and candles were burning at either end," said Nettie. We were all very sad. I have always felt terrible about it," she added (p. 33). It's not known if this event caused Mrs. Crook to become depressed, that lead to her abusing and neglecting her children.

In 1910 at the age of five the twins and Leon, age nine, were taken away from their parents by the Local Justice of the Peace. The children never saw their mother again. All three of the children were taken to an orphanage in Kingston, NY. Their birth dates on their records were changed so they could not be traced. The twins never saw their brother the nine months they were there. The girls stuck by each other's side. "We didn't want to be apart for a moment," Nettie recalled. "All the girls slept in a big dormitory filled with small beds, and every night Nettie climbed out of her bed and into mine. They tried to get her to stop, but she never did" (p. 34).

The care takers at the orphanage were strict and gave no affection, which made life at the orphanage sterile.  The orphan children ate at long tables and bathed with harsh smelling soap. Some happy memories that Nellie remembered at the orphange were sledding, building snowmen and making snow angles. September 1911, the girls unknowingly were take from the orphanage and were sent to the Kingston train depot. As the girls climbed aboard on the train filled with children, they left behind their parents, relatives and sadly their brother Leon, who would grow up in the Kingston orphanage. The Aid-Society agent that cared for the twins was Ann Laura Hill. Miss Hill gave the girls name badges and a slice of bread to eat. Nettie remembered that she and Nellie huddled together because the train was cold.  The train was covered with coal dust and the seats were made of horsehair, which made them rough and hard. Also the train was pitch-black at night because there was no light. The children were fed at the stops along the way and sometimes lined up so that people could look over them. At the Kansas Union Station the twins were told to draw in a crowd by singing "Jesus loves me." Miss Hill made it known to those interested in the twins that they could not be split apart. The girls lined up on the stage, after four days on the train, at a opera house in McPherson, a small town in central Kansas, L.F. and Gertie Chapin were the twins' new parents.

They had no children and Mr. Chapin owned a grocery store in a village called Canton where they lived. Mr. Chapin was a nice man according to Nettie. He took them fishing and gave them treats from his store, such as gum. He always warned them to spit their gum out before returning home, where Gertie Chapin was. She forbid the girsl from having it. Even though Mr. Chapin was nice, he never protected them from Mrs. Chapin.

Mrs. Chapin was very cruel and sadistic. She abused the girls and warned them not to tell Mr. Chapin. Nettie and Nellie were forced to eat whatever Mrs. Chapin gave them, including fish bones. One form of abuse was being whipped with a buggy whip for the slightest infractions. The whip cut through Nettie's back and leg clothing. They also had to do extreme chores, such as carrying heavy buckets of water from the well. Once Nellie tripped and broke a dish and was severely whipped. Gertie never showed remorse towards the way she treated the girls. The girls tried to defend each other when Gertie went after one of them. The girls were only six years old and all they wanted was love.

They tried extremely hard to obey the Chapins. Miss Hill went to retrieve the girls when someone reported abuse to the Children's Aid Society. The girls headed back to McPherson by train. James and Marry Darrah were the girls' temporary parents. The Darrahs were an older couple with a grown son. They quickly grew attached to the girls and asked if they could officially be their new parents. The twins also grew attached and wanted to stay. "With the Darrahs, we were loved and accepted and appreciated," Nettie said  (p. 39). The girls were baptized and became known as the Darrah twins. They lived in a beautiful five bedroom house. Mr. Darrah was an easy going man who was kind, but soon died of a disease. Mother Darrah was strict but loving. She taught the girls how to clean, cook and sew. They knew how to garden, make soap, take care of a home, and be excellent students. Nettie and Nellie spent time on a farm with the Darrahs' son Jim and his family. The twins were considered part of the family.

Nettie and Nellie graduated high school in 1923 and began college. Soon Mother Darrah died of cancer. The girls became graduates of Kansas State University and married in 1930. The twins stayed in touch with Miss Hill, who sent them a wedding gift. The twins finally separated when they began to start their new life, but stayed in touch with one another. Nellie and her husband, Milton Kerr, had two children and lived on the East Coast. Nettie lived on a farm in central Kansas with her husband, Karl Enns, and two children. Both had grandchildren and Nettie had great grandchildren. When they retired they lived across the street from each other in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Nettie and Nellie reconnected with their brother Leon who found their father. Mr. Crook cried over the girls and apologized. Nellie died just before their 92nd birthday in 1997.

Fred Engert Swedenburg and Howard Hurd, 1925 riders to Nebraska

Fred Engert Swedenburg was six years old and his brother Howard Engert Hurd was just shy of four when they arrived in Osceola, Nebraska. The seats on the train were hard wood and uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that some children preferred sleeping on the floor. There were also no pillows, and sandwiches were the children's meals. Alice Bogardus was the boys' agent and was determined to keep the boys' together. While on the Orphan Train they did not have great luck. Even though they were extremely cute with chubby cheeks, fair hair and brown eyes, no one wanted them both. If they did not find a home in Osceola they would have been sent back to an orphanage in New York.

In Osceola they were dressed in matching sailor suits and lined up to be looked over by a crowd of people. Fred was taken by Arthur and Hazel Swedenburg, and Howard was placed with a temporary family until another could be found near Fred. He was finally taken in by Roy and Martha Hurd who lived on a farm near Stromsburg, Nebraska. The family loved him including his new older sister. Fred and Howard attended country school, church and did regular chores. The two families knew each other and made sure the boys could see each other as much as possible.

"I was always treated just like family," said Fred. "In fact, some family members forgot I'd come on an Orphan Train" (p. 82). Howard occasionally had trouble with other kids. He also had trouble with one of his grandmothers who criticized his parents about getting him. When Howard was old enough he tried farming, but then joined several former classmates who enlisted in the navy. He was trained as a medic and was assigned to the second division marines in the South Pacific during World War II. He was wounded twice and wore a leg brace. When Howard was temporarily stationed in New York the mayor enclosed his birth parents' addresses in a letter with his birth certificate. When Howard walked up to the house where his biological mother lived she opened the door, looked him up and down, recognized him and coldly said hello. The same thing happened when he reconnected with his father. They were not interested in him or Fred at all.

Howard let it go and began to raise his own family and run his own cab company. He married a New York woman who eventually walked out on him and their three sons. He eventually married again to a woman named Gladys who had four children and left her abusive-alcoholic husband. The family moved to Nebraska and had six kids besides the ones they already had in their previous marriage. The family struggled, but loved their children. Today Howard has 27 grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren.

During the Great Depression Fred quit high school to help his family on their farm. He also was the neighborhood handyman: he oiled windmills and did jobs people were willing to pay for. He also worked for the highway department and served in World War II as a pilot and mechanic. He married a woman named Idona in April of 1944. When he left the military he operated the Swedenburg Garage and later owned a hauling business. He and Idona had three children who gave them grandchildren.

After the brothers' biological mother died they received a letter from their father that was sent to their mother from the Children's Aid Society. It stated that they were taken because of scandalous neglect. To honor the Orphan Train they made an effort to promote the movement's history and in their older years they received the Charles Loring Brace award by OTHSA.

Effect on the children of the Great Depression

The main effects on the children of the Great Depression were hard labor, not getting enough nutrients and food, and feeling out of place. Many of the children of the Great Depression suffered emotional and psychological problems from experiencing hardship from what was around them. Because of experiencing poverty, many children grew up to be adults who believed saving and education was very valuable and important to prevent their childhood from repeating. Parents of the Great Depression had to make the decision of putting their child to work to help the family financially. Some children joined their parents peddling goods or tending fields. More commonly, children did manual labor and worked long hours. The children of the Great Depression were, in most cases, pulled out of school as young as elementary, and those who were never returned.

Goals of the Orphan Train

The goal of Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children's Aid Society and Orphan Train, was to place children out with families in the West, rather than having them in over crowded, gloomy orphanages not being taught how to become better people and well off adults. He believed that the neglected and victimized children should experience the environment in a strong family unit. Brace thought it would be mutually beneficial for the children to be placed with upright farm families to (1) experience being in a loving family, (2) learn how to work, and (3) help the pioneer families have an extra hand around to help with chores. Charles Loring Brace's vision of the movement was sending the needy children out west to be welcomed, embraced and treated like family by the farmers.

The Orphan Train and Great Depression

In the 1920s the Orphan Train began to fall to a low. Ironically, the Orphan Train ended when the Great Depression started. When new laws were enacted and new programs were designed to help children directly, they made it hard for the Orphan Train to continue placing out children. Also new foster care homes began to replace the need of orphanages. As local governments were urged to help families the Orphan Train was no longer needed. In 1929, the Orphan Train was banned by federal law. The Orphan Train movement was accused by many people of slavery. The way the Orphan Train gathered and transported children to farmers in need of labor was similar to slave auctions. Due to the Depression Era, laws were enacted prohibiting the use of children. In 1938 the Fair Labor Standard Act was enacted, allowing a federal regulation of child labor, and in 1944 the Supreme Court approved The Child Labor amendment.


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