Story of the Orphan Trains

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on January 12, 2008 0 Comments

"Don't live nowhere."

 All too often these three words were the answer a young minister named Charles Loring Brace and his associates received in reply to the question "Where do you live?" The responses came from little bootblacks, young peddlers or "canawl-boys," pickpockets and petty thieves, child beggars and flower-sellers. These young street Arabs, urchins, waifs, foundlings, or orphans, whatever they were called, truly lived nowhere. They slept in doorways or cellars, boxes or markets, or they hired a bed in filthy lodging-houses. Many could not read, did not go to school or attend church. Many of them had never seen a Bible. Where was this sad scene taking place you might wonder? Some foreign country you think? Actually, we're talking about our America.

Considering how many people were involved in this era of our history, I find it surprising that so little is known about the efforts to provide help for these unfortunate children. Perhaps you've already heard of the Orphan Trains. In the last few years, many books have been written on this subject, some fiction, some true. Perhaps some of you even have an Orphan Train rider in your family. If so, you may have studied about them. You may know things I do not. In any case, I'd like to give you a little background on this subject and why I became interested. This comes from a talk I gave a few years back to our retired teacher convention.

In the mid-nineteenth century an estimated 30,000 children were living on the streets of New York, surviving the best way they could. It seems strange that there were so many homeless children in the land of plenty, the land of promise. Many reasons account for the number of children who had no home, no family, no one to care whether they had warm clothing, a place to sleep at night or food to eat.

During the mid 19th to early 20th Centuries thousands of immigrants came to the New World in search of a better life for their families. New York was the main Port of Call. Instead of jobs and prosperity, as they had expected, these immigrants found little or no work. Instead of nice homes where they could raise their children, many were crowded into tiny tenement apartments. Charles Loring Brace paints a vivid picture of tenement life in his book The Dangerous Classes of New York. I quote: "In a dark cellar filled with smoke, there sleep, all in one room with no kind of partition dividing them, two men with their wives, a girl of thirteen or fourteen, two men and a large boy of about seventeen years of age, a mother with two more boys, one about ten years old, and one large boy of fifteen; another woman with two boys, nine and eleven years of age—in all, fourteen persons." 

These crowded conditions led to diseases such as cholera and TB, which accounted for many deaths. In 1865, the deaths in tenement-houses were 14,500 out of 19,813, the total for the whole city of New York.

The resulting deaths of parents left many children with no relative or friends to care for them, so they were on their own and resorted to almost anything to survive.

Even if one parent was alive, he or she might be unable to provide for a houseful of kids. Mary Ellen Johnson, founder of the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, told me that in those days a man was not allowed to raise his daughters alone. This too would account for a large number of half-orphans being put in orphanages or left to fend for themselves.

Another reason for so many homeless children was the number of fathers who were drunkards and simply abandoned their families.

Sometimes the children ran away from impossible situations, such as abusive parents, or because they simply wanted to be on their own. In Stephen O'Connor's book, Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, the author tells about the home life of many of the waifs of New York who ended up in lodging houses or on trains headed west. In the next part of my article, we'll see what Rev. Brace and others did to solve the problem, resulting in the Orphan Train era.


About the Author ()

I am the author of nine books for children from picture books to young adult. I'm also a mother of three sons, a mema, and greatmema.

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