“I went with a man named Bob. He showed me his basement and the canned goods. We ate and I didn’t eat much. I didn’t know what corn, butter or sugar was. His wife didn’t want me to stay. So I went back.” — Elizabeth Wilde Daniels, New York City orphan.
I’ve been meaning to write a column about the Orphan Train Movement for a long, long time. And, like many orphans, it seemed to always get pushed to the back of my list of history topics to tackle, much akin to how an orphan must feel — shunted to the back of society’s train.
So, when the Railroad Museum of Oklahoma presented a program on “Riders of the Orphan Train,” it finally moved me to do this piece.
The Orphan Train Movement, as it was called from 1853 until it passed into history in the year 1929, was one of the earliest social welfare programs of its kind in the United States.
Essentially, it transported children from crowded cities like New York and Boston on the East Coast, to willing foster homes across this land.
Relocating as many as 250,000 either orphaned, abandoned or homeless children during its more than 75 years in existence, its establishment came about due to an estimated 30,000 vagrant children — so many stray dogs and cats of forgotten American society — who were said to be existing on the streets of New York City.
That is an overwhelming number, even by today’s standards. Just think how it affected the sensibilities of pre-Civil War America, which in 1853 was beginning to feel the effects of a brewing Civil War over slavery.
Two charity organizations, The Children’s Aid Society, established by Charles Loring Brace, and later, the Catholic New York Founding Hospital, set out to help these unfortunate children find homes across America.
Called orphan trains and baby trains, this movement eventually ended in the late-1920s, with the beginning of foster care in America.
But before foster homes, before there was any government aid, poverty, death, disease, war and every other calamity you can think of, helped swell the orphan population on these shores to epidemic proportions.
Charles Loring Brace generally is given most credit for turning this unfortunate situation around, believing institutional care in orphanages in the 1850s (see Charles Dickens) only stunted and destroyed children.
He viewed work, education and strong family life essential for turning innocent children into self-reliant citizens.
Seeing that America’s pioneering families of the Plains and West could use children, he undertook his Orphan Train Movement.
“In every American community, especially in a Western one, there are many spare places at the table of life,” Brace wrote.
Ranging in age from 6 to 18, up to 40 children at a time would ride the trains West from big cities, under sometimes poor conditions — in the early days — not much better than cattle cars.
At various stops in states like Texas, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois and Nebraska, townspeople interested in taking in the orphans would congregate to view and inspect the young ones on a stage, checking their physical condition and teeth, and either rejecting or accepting them into their homes.
Many siblings were separated in this manner, and many good outcomes for these children came about — but also, many bad ones as well.
Before the Civil War, in the caldron where everything was seen through the eyes of pro- or anti-slavery, the program often was criticized.
Abolitionists viewed it as a form of slavery. And for many children, that view was not far from wrong.
Pro-slavery advocates took a 180-degree tack, seeing it as part of the abolitionist movement, since the labor provided by the children helped make slaves unnecessary.
Many, like Anna Miller Bassett, found a good home in Texas to people that took care of her and loved her, writing of her experiences.
Many others, like Elizabeth Wilde Daniels, whose quote from her recollections began this column, were orphaned by the great flu pandemic of 1918-19, losing her parents in New York City to sickness.
In 1922, Elizabeth wrote: “Other people wanted me and I’d stay the three weeks and come home. All together, I was in 8 homes. Some of the homes weren’t pleasant.”
Unfortunately for her, and many like her, the orphan train experience was one of trial and error — hoping only to find a good set of new parents to take them in.
In the end, while the Orphan Train Movement was a chance for children who had no chance, it was a bandage on a societal problem that always has plagued mankind.
Today, society still struggles mightily with orphaned or unwanted children, foster care and adoption, looking for answers. Sometimes, the answers never come.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking