“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.