Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte's column in the November 19, 2015 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.
One-hundred and seventy-five years ago, social workers and philanthropists in Boston in 1840 began the "Boston Plan". Orphaned or homeless children were “placed out” in the hope that they would be adopted by families who wanted them. Children from Massachusetts were sent to what they hoped would be new homes in states as close as Vermont or as far-flung as the farms and prairies across the American Midwest in the Westward Expansion.
Some of the children had lost both parents; others had lost only one, but the surviving parent could not care for them.
One of the largest criticisms of the Boston Plan was that it allowed some children to become indentured servants to families who wanted extra hands on the tracts of land they were settling or the land they were farming. Now considered illegal or cruel, the organization sponsoring this plan sincerely believed they were taking these orphaned children from the mean streets of the city and giving them a second chance at a wholesome life in the country.
Thirteen years later, when at least 30,000 orphaned and homeless children roamed the streets in New York City, a young minister founded the Children’s Aid Society. The organization began with the hope of finding local homes for children, but it soon found that homes needed to be found in upper New England, western New York, and eventually the Midwestern United States.
Over the course of more than seventy-five years, from 1853-1929, somewhere between 120,000 to 250,000 children were sent on Orphan Trains from New York City to farms and ranches hundreds and thousands of miles away.
That young minister was Charles Loring Brace and the history of the Orphan Trains is told in books and documentaries available in the Minuteman libraries.
The most scholarly account that includes personal stories of riders of the orphan trains was written by Stephen O’Connor. Orphan Trains (2001) juxtaposes the ethical questions of shipping these children so far from home to an unknown and often undocumented situation with the second chances hoped to deliver to children starving on New York streets. Young girls doomed to lives of prostitution, and young boys bound for a life of crime, were sent on the trains in the hope that families would love and adopt them.
Before they left on the trains, Charles Loring Brace promised that they would be bathed, given clean, new clothes, and a suitcase. Social workers accompanied them and stopped in towns across Kansas, Arkansas and some as far away as Canada and Mexico.
At first, Brace was commended for his efforts. As time went on, the Orphan Train movement had many detractors. Children were separated, they were taken from their culture, and they were often lonely and sometimes isolated.
O’Connor’s historical account, however, includes success stories, particularly of two young boys who would years later become the governors of Alaska and North Dakota. Charles Loring Brace and the Children’s Aid Society depended on their “family plan” - one that did not include indentured servitude. Children were given time to decide if they liked their lives in their new homes and they were allowed to leave or try again in a new home.
That said, many children were abused just as they could have been by their parents. There was very little follow-up in the years after a family was found.
The Orphan Train movement ended in 1929. A PBS documentary for The American Experience (narrated by David McCullough in 1995) traces the lives of several Orphan Train children. At the time of the filming, about a dozen of the children featured in the documentary were then in their seventies, eighties, and nineties. At the center of this videotaped account is the discovery of the diaries of Charles Brace, found by a retired archivist, Ethel Lambert. She unearthed them from a hidden closet in the basement of the Children’s Aid Society, and fragments of the history of the Orphan Trains were finally pieced together a century after Charles Loring Brace’s death.
In Boston, in 1865, the New England Home for Little Wanderers was formed to care for the children orphaned by the Civil War. The agency also began sending children out West for adoption.
There are many terrific books for children that explain the realistic stories of the Orphan Trains. Perspectives is a children’s non-fiction series with digital titles available on Hoopla!, our library’s collection of downloadable e-books, videos, and audiobooks. (Perspectives also includes stories of the Underground Railroad, the Dropping of the Atomic Bombs, the Japanese Internment, and many others available 24/7 with your library card.) The Orphan Trains by Peggy Caravantes (2014) explains the story of the Orphan Trains through the eyes of three different people, James Sinclair (the orphan), Nancy King (the farming wife who adopts him), and Anna Lane, the social worker with the Children’s Aid Society.
Another children’s book, and one of the non-fiction books in the We the People series, is The Orphan Trains by Alice Flanagan (2006). There are also fictional accounts for young children (Train to Somewhere by Eve Bunting and The Mystery of the Orphan Train by Gertrude Chandler Warner) and others for young adults by Joan Lowery Nixon.
The best-known historical fiction account for adults is by Christina Baker Kline (available also in large print, audio, and e-book). Published in 2013, Kline’s novel illuminated the hidden stories of the Orphan Trains to the American public who was not familiar with the story. It follows the life of Irish immigrant from Ireland to a new home in New York City. After a fire destroys her home and family, this young Irish-Catholic girl rode the Orphan Train to the American Midwest finally settling as an adult on the coast of Maine. As of this year, the book is being adapted for film.
The Orphan Train Depot Organization in Concordia, Kansas has an extensive collection of the history of the trains, and the children who rode them, in the historical Union Pacific Railroad Depot. Many online resources are available to descendants who might want to trace their roots back to children who rode the trains.