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Lost Children: Riders on the Orphan Train

By Dan Scheuerman | HUMANITIES, November/December 2007 | Volume 28, Number 6

“Dear Sisters, By the love of God be so kind as to take this poor orphan child and if she should die, please to bury her for me and I will be very happy. . . . I can't afford to bury her.”

This anonymous letter, along with the unnamed infant attached to it, was left in a basket outside New York’s Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity in the 1860s. It tells the end of a pitiful story. But the story it begins is something else entirely.

Between 1854 and 1929, a quarter million abandoned babies and “street rats” (as the older children were referred to by police) left slums in New York, Boston, and other coastal cities aboard trains, headed for new lives in the country. Their experiences are recounted at the new National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas, as well as in the new documentary, Placing Out, both sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council.

The story begins, like most, with a man coming to town. The man was Charles Loring Brace, and the town was New York City. In 1849, the young Presbyterian minister arrived on the wings of a vocation to evangelize the poor. “Mr. Brace had grandiose ideas of his goal on this earth,” Sara Jane Richter, professor of history at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, says on camera in Placing Out. “He intended to lead as many people as he could to a Christian lifestyle, and he thought he should start young—with young people—because he saw young, untended children as future criminals.”

He came to the right place. Over the course of the nineteenth century, New York’s social structure buckled under the influx of immigrants. The Five Points neighborhood in Manhattan became America’s first slum in 1825. “By 1850,” said Marilyn Holt, author of The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America and a major source for the Placing Out film, “there are 10,000 children either living full- or part-time on the streets of New York."

In his 1872 book, The Dangerous Classes of New York, and Twenty Years’ Work Among Them, Brace described the young gangs of New York’s Eleventh Ward:

They are far more brutal than the peasantry from whom they descend, and they are much banded together, in associations, such as “Dead Rabbit,” “Plug-ugly,” and various target companies. They are our enfants perdus, grown up to young manhood. The murder of an unoffending old man . . . is nothing to them. They are ready for any offense of crime, however degraded or bloody.

Brace’s early outreach consisted of “boys meetings” at which young men received food and Bible instruction. Brace quickly realized, however, the need to do more. “It wasn't really helping at all,” says Stephanie Haiar, curator at the National Orphan Train Complex. “They’d come in to get the free meal . . . and then they’d go back out on the streets and continue doing what they were doing.”

The solution, Brace decided, was work. “There is no doubt that a lad with a trade feels a peculiar independence of the world,” he wrote, “and is much less likely to take up dishonest means of living.” The question became where to find jobs. New York’s labor unions refused to employ boys, but all was not lost: “Our hope in this matter is in the steady demand for juvenile labor in the country districts, and the substantial rewards which await industry there.”

In 1853, Brace started the Children’s Aid Society, which organized the exodus of orphans by the trainload. He hitched the foster-care-cum-employment agency to the expanding railroad system. “After the Civil War, when the train network begins to spread westward, you have this huge influx of settlers,” said Holt. “Then you have a local population that’s willing to take children, and in some cases demanding [them], because there is a need for more people to help build up the country.”

Children would board a westbound train in groups of up to forty, accompanied by two agents from the society, and preceded by circulars advertising, said Holt, “their ‘little laborers,’ as they were called.”

When the trains stopped, the children were paraded from the depot into a local playhouse, where they were put up on stage, thus the origin of the term “up for adoption.” Here, “they took turns giving their names, singing a little ditty, or ‘saying a piece,’” according to an exhibit panel from the National Orphan Train Complex. Less cute scenarios, said Richter, resembled slave auctions. “People came along and prodded them, and looked, and felt, and saw how many teeth they had.”

The demand was fierce, with many trains visiting the same towns over and over. Holt told of one instance in Maryville, Kansas, where “there were 150 families wanting to adopt, or take in, fourteen children, and they almost had fisticuffs out in the street because there were so many people who wanted these few children.”

Although the demand was motivated by a need for labor, the Children’s Aid Society took pains to ensure the children were well cared for. Families applying to take children had to be endorsed by a committee of local business owners, doctors, and journalists. According to the society's “Terms on Which Boys are Placed in Homes,” boys under twelve were to be “treated by the applicants as one of their own children in matters of schooling, clothing, and training,” and boys twelve to fifteen were to be “sent to a school a part of each year.” Representatives from the society would visit each family once a year to check conditions, and children were expected to write letters back to the society twice a year.

The personal histories related in the National Orphan Train Complex and in Placing Out tend not to dwell on the labor required of riders, unless there was abuse associated with it. As Roberta Lowrey, genealogist and great-granddaughter of a train rider, told filmmakers, child labor was a fact of life, “whether you were an orphan train rider, or whether you were born into a farm family in the Midwest, or a cotton-picking family in Texas, or a corn-growing family in Iowa.”

The hardships most often described are emotional ones. “The people who took my father in spoke what we call the Plautdietsch,” Francis Schippers recounts in the film, “and they had to have his brother interpret for him.” The new brother took advantage of the language barrier to shovel all the chores onto the adopted child, who was acutely aware of not fitting in. The pale Irish redhead was teased for being “one of those.”

Other stories tell of siblings separated, or the heartache of guessing one’s origins. As often, though, the riders, the youngest of whom are today around eighty years old, speak with gratitude toward their foster families. Irma Craig Schneiders, who rode the train to Osage City, Missouri, in 1901, wrote of a family that “loved me and reared me just like I was their own child. From them I learned the rules of good behavior, the miracle of the sanctity of life, and love for a Creator and the marvels of the world.”

Linda McCaffery, a professor at Barton County Community College in Kansas interviewed for Placing Out, described a range of experiences as diverse as the quarter million orphans who rode the trains. “Many were used as strictly slave farm labor, but there are stories, wonderful stories of children ending up in fine families that loved them, cherished them, [and] educated them.”

“Here’s the real nugget of what happened,” said Lowrey. “They were so much better off than if they had been left on the streets of New York. . . . They were just not going to survive, or if they had, their fate would surely have been awful.”