Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe passenger train, 1875.
In 1926, a four-year-old orphan named Lorraine Williams and 13 other children were scrubbed, dressed in new clothes and put onto an orphan train leaving Grand Central Station.
The children weren’t told where they were going, but their destination was likely to be better than where they’d been. Lorraine was placed in an orphanage as an infant and went hungry for the next four years. She remembered how every night at dinner she was handed a shallow tin pie plate with a thin vegetable soup ladled into it.
Lorraine Williams was one of about 200,000 orphaned and abandoned children who rode the orphan trains to new homes between 1850 and 1930.
They followed the expanding railroads from Boston, New York and other East Coast cities to New Hampshire, Vermont, upstate New York and the Midwest. Some, like Lorraine, were lucky: They found good homes with loving parents. Others were treated as servants or farmhands, abused or never fully accepted by their new families.
Some did well, like John Green Brady, who became governor of Alaska, and Andrew Burke, who became governor of North Dakota. Others didn’t turn out so well: Billy the Kid was supposedly an orphan train rider.
The First Orphan Train
The first orphan train left Boston in 1850 and carried 30 homeless waifs to New Hampshire and Vermont. They were wards of the Children’s Mission to the Children of the Destitute, a Protestant charity that was the first to send agents to search the streets, docks, theaters and railway stations for ‘street arabs’ and guttersnipes – in other words, children in need of supervision.
Joseph Barry, the Children’s Mission’s first agent, found a 13-year-old girl whose drunken parents pulled out her eyelashes.
He found scores of boys playing and gambling with props and cents, not only on weekdays, but on Sundays; and rum-shops kept open, in defiance of the law, where youths were enticed to almost certain destruction. He has often seen boys from eight to twelve years of age intoxicated, and found that many of the rum-sellers received stolen goods from the boys in payment for the liquor they drank; thus doing the double work of making drunkards and thieves at the same time.
Many were the children of impoverished Irish Catholic immigrants or immigrants themselves. Later, they included children whose fathers were killed in the Civil War.
Howard Engert was four years old when he rode the train with his older brother Fred in 1925. “I can recall the hard wooden seats," he said. "They got so uncomfortable, some of the kids slept on the floor, even though we had no pillows. I remember we ate sandwiches for most meals. The train stopped a lot and it seemed like we were always getting on or off it.” After a week’s journey, Howard and his brother found separate homes in Osceola, Neb.
The practice of sending children away on orphan trains was seen as a modern, efficient way to take the surplus juvenile population from an overcrowded city. The children would be placed in decent Yankee homes where they could receive a proper upbringing. The Children’s Mission allowed children to be indentured as servants.
Three years after that first orphan train left Boston, Charles Loring Brace began sending more than 300 children a year on orphan trains from New York City.
Born on June 19, 1826, in Litchfield, Conn., Brace started the Children’s Aid Society in New York at the age of 27. He became known as the champion of orphan trains, with publicity help from Horatio Alger. After the Civil War, Brace sent 1,000 children a year to Christian homes in the rural Midwest.
Lorraine Williams rode the orphan train to Kirksville, Mo., where she and the other children were taken to a crowded church. Adults picked them out to take home like puppies.
An old man approached Lorraine and said, “I’ll take that one. My wife is sick and I need someone to wash the dishes.” Lorraine refused to go with him. A man with a gentle voice handed her a strawberry ice cream cone. “You can have one every day,” he said. She took his hand. He looked at his wife and said, “Minnie, let’s take this little one home.”
“I could not have had more loving parents, “ she recalled later in life. In 1910, the Children’s Aid Society reported 87 percent of the placements worked out well.
Civil War Orphans
In 1865, 10 Boston businessmen formed the New England Home for Little Wanderers to care for the children orphaned by the Civil War. The agency began sending children out west, not as indentured servants but for adoption.
The Rev. S.S. Cummings explained how the Home for Little Wanderers’ orphan train worked:
It is surprising to some that we will start off with a company of thirty or forty children, not knowing where we shall find a home for them. The process is simple. We look over the map of the country, and line of railroads, and decide on some town to make our first point, and then write to the pastors of the churches that we will be there at a given time, generally arriving on Saturday, and ask them to make arrangements for our holding services in their churches on the Sabbath. . .
The children at the church in the presence of the people and an appropriate talk of our duty to provide for, and take care of, orphan children, brings our work and the object of our visit before the public preparatory for the work of adoption on Monday. We invite the people to meet us on Monday and see the children and make a selection if desirable. Meantime, we form a brief acquaintance with the pastor and a few good reliable citizens that are always ready to give any information desirable as to the fitness of families to become responsible for the charge of the children.
Hazelle Latimer rode the orphan train in 1918. Decades later she recalled the experience.
That was an ordeal that no child should go through. They pulled us and pushed us and shoved us. And this old man--I had never seen anything like anybody chewing tobacco. I knew nothing about it. This old man came up and his mouth was all stained brown and I thought, well, he'd been eating chocolate candy or something. Then he said, 'Open your mouth.' I looked at him and he--'I want to see about your teeth.' I opened my mouth and he stuck his finger in my mouth and just--rubbed over my teeth. And his old dirty hands just--I wanted to bite, but I didn't.
Agents were supposed to go round once a year to make sure the children were cared for properly and educated. A child could be removed from an unsuitable home. Such was the case with Hazelle Lattimer:
We got to the house and this old lady met me and says, “You look all right...” Her daughter-in-law was waiting for her husband to come from the war…She told me just exactly why those people wanted me, that she would be gone and I…would be big enough to take care of that house.
And that’s all they wanted with me. And I said, “What can I do?” She says, “Go back to the [agent ] and tell them it’s just not for you.” She drew me a map of where I was…And when I walked in [the agent asked], “Well, what happened to you?” And I said, “They didn’t want a child. They wanted a slave.”
Fortunately, Hazelle Latimer’s next and permanent placement was a happy one.
The orphan trains had detractors. In New York, Brace was called a ‘child stealer’ and criticized for ‘shipping them wholesale into the country.’ Some of the states where children were sent complained they were placed indiscriminately in poorly supervised foster families. Abolitionists described the displays of children as ‘slave auctions.’
In Boston, they were criticized for turning immigrant Catholic children to Protestants, since children were sent away to mostly Protestant families, their ties to their birth families severed.
The Rev. George F. Haskins, spokesman for Bishop John B. Fitzpatrick of Boston, accused the Children’s Mission of luring Catholic children onto the trains to turn them into Protestants:
To aid in the work of perversion … societies were formed to receive Catholic children and provide for them till a number should be collected sufficient to fill a car, when they should be steamed swiftly off to some western state and there sold, body and soul, to farmers and squatters. Missionaries, both male and female, were hired to prowl about certain quarters of the city, to talk with children in the streets, like the Manicheans of old, and invite and urge them to leave their friends and homes, picturing to them vistas of abundant food, clothes and money. Sunday schools were opened, and teachers employed to waylay children on their path to their own schools and to bribe them into theirs. If pastors and teaches sought their missing lambs in these wolves' dens, they found unfriendly policemen at the doors to prevent them entering.
He knew what he was talking about. He had been the Episcopalian pastor of the Grace Church in Boston before converting to Catholicism. He had lured Catholic boys into the church with candy and games in hopes of winning their souls.
The last orphan train left New York City on May 31, 1929, bound for Sulphur Springs, Texas. The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression left Midwestern families unable to feed another mouth. Attitudes toward homeless children and poor families had also changed: It was thought better to keep families intact, and states passed laws that barred agencies from sending children out of state for placement.
The Last Generation
Today, an estimated one in 25 Americans has a connection to an orphan train rider.
In 1986, Mary Ellen Johnson, a publisher’s assistant, discovered an orphan train had delivered children to her home in Springdale, Ark. She founded the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, which hosts orphan train reunions in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Oklahoma. The National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kans., allows surviving orphan train riders to keep in touch with each other.
In 2001, Fred Engert Swedenborg and his brother Howard Engert Hurd were active members of the OTHSA. They put together an exhibit on the orphan trains for the Plainsman Museum in Aurora, Neb.
“People seeing the exhibit talk about how terrible it was that children were put on trains, but I tell them, look at all the kids today who are in abusive homes or are stuck in bad foster homes,” Fred said.
“The system did its best for my brother and me,” said Howard. “I think the orphan trains were a wonderful thing.”
With thanks to We Rode the Orphan Trains by Andrea Warren and Boston's Wayward Children: Social Services for Homeless Children, 1830-1930 by Peter C. Holloran. This story was updated in 2017.