The Topic:
Orphan Trains

Easier - Beginning in 1854, for seventy-six years thousands of homeless, neglected poor children from New York City were moved west to rural towns and farm communities. They traveled by rail. Families took them into their homes. Some became foster children or were adopted into a family. Others lived as boarders, apprentices, or live-in laborers. Some found good homes; others found a new life of indentured service or even abuse. Some loved and were loved in their new homes. Others ran away or moved on to another family.
Harder - From 1854 to 1929, orphan trains from New York "placed out" 150,000 to 200,000 destitute children, mainly to homes in the farming communities of the Midwest. Some of these children, young infants to age 15, were orphans. Many were homeless street kids, and others were given-up by parents unable to provide for their well-being. Some had been abandoned by their families, were runaways, or had been removed from abusive homes. Children on the orphan trains came from the street gangs and orphan asylums of the city.
During the orphan train trip, children were accompanied by a placing agent. The trains stopped in scheduled locations. Children usually lined up in front of prospective takers on a platform or at a meeting hall. They were encouraged to look and act their best. Inspection sometimes involved poking and prodding; an attempt to ascertain their value as workers on farms or in local shops and businesses. Children that were not selected returned to the train to travel on to the another stop.
Two main institutions in New York City were involved in the mass "migration" of children: The Children's Aid Society and The New York Foundling Hospital. Both are operating today, still involved with aiding in child welfare. The Children's Aid Society, founded and directed by Charles Loring Brace, began the orphan trains as a way to "save" poor street children by placing them with families. The idea was that families would provide the children food, clothing, and a living space in return for their help on the farms. It was hoped that the children would become an integral part of the families, that they would be adopted. When it actually worked that way, it was usually great. Children grew up, married, raised families, and contributed to the growing nation. Two orphan train boys went on to become governors of South Dakota and Alaska. Others were teachers, business people, legislators, and community leaders. Many children were placed in situations that didn't work. Unfortunately, some of these foster families were abusive and exploitive. Children sometimes moved from family to family, until they finally were on their own. And some of the children were difficult, incorrigible, and delinquent. Billy the Kid was an orphan train child.
Orphan Train Collection
This website is a collection of magazines, books, newspapers, newsletters, photos, and interviews.
Not-To-Be-Missed Section:
2) Other Orphan Movements
Orphan Train: The New York Missouri Connection by S. Silverman, Comsewogue School District
This comprehensive website providing all kinds of information, resources, and activities related to the orphan trains is a collaborative school project.
Not-To-Be-Missed Section:
2) Online Activities
Related Project on Orphan Trains:
3) Orphan Trains
Orphan Trains from PBS's American Experience
Here you can read about the trains that carried orphaned and neglected children from cities in the northeast to the Midwest. The site includes a transcript from the PBS show.
Orphan Trains of Kansas by C. Dipasquale and S. Stafford from Kansas Collection
This extensive website houses stories, history, newspaper accounts, photos and graphics, and reference data related to the orphan trains of Kansas.
Related Websites:
2) Adoption & Orphan Trains (Nebraska)
3) Iowa Orphan Train Project (3rd Grade Class Project, Briggs Elementary School,
Maquoketa Iowa)
4) Indiana Orphan Trains Project
5) Louisiana Orphan Train
6) Orphan Train in Michigan
7) Orphan Trains from Nebraska State Historical Society
8) Orphan Trains to Hamilton County, Iowa
9) Orphan Trains to Iowa from IAGenWeb
10)Orphan Trains to Missouri by M.D. Patrick and E.G. Trickel (book summary)
11)They Rode the Orphan Trains (Missouri)
After exploring several of the websites, complete one or more of the following activities.
Complete An Orphan Train WebQuest. Adapt or follow the procedures found at these webQuest sites:
1) Journey on the Orphan Train with the Novel "A Family Apart" (Grade 5-7) by A.M. Knust
2) Orphan Train (Grade 5) by S. Bare, L. Fortner, J. Hedrick, & S. Speaks
3) Riding the Orphan Train by K. Ridge
4) Will They Take Me As Their Child? by M.B. Thomas
Debate the Orphan Train Movement. Consider the issue of whether the orphan relocation movement was a charitable action or a tragic mistake. Identify the key historical factors, research to find as much data as you can, and decide which side of the argument you wish to take. Debate the issue; make a strong argument for your view.
Compare and Contrast 'Orphan Train Children' to Homeless/Street Kids of Today. How are they and their welfare similar and different. Detail your findings. Consider showing them in a graphic concept map completed with Inspiration Software. Finally, what should be done to ensure the basic welfare of today's children? How should this be accomplished? An alternate activity is to compare orphan train children to children in foster care today.
Write An Orphan Train Journal. Imagine that you are a child on an orphan train. Create a journal about your experiences. Possibilities for your entries include the life you left behind in New York City, the train trip, your new town, family placement, and other adventures. Be sure to include descriptions of your new family, why you think they chose to 'take you in", and what your new life is like.
Create An Orphan Train Concept Map. Include all the factors that contributed to the creation of orphan trains. What were the positive and negative aspects of the procedure?
Pretend That You Are In A Placement Town. Choose a real location that was a destination for an orphan train. Find it on the map, calculate how many miles the train traveled from New York. Show the train route that the orphan train would likely follow to reach your town. You can find helpful resources at the Library of Congress American Memories site for Railroad Maps. Divide into groups. Each group should pretend to be a family. Write about why your family is interested in having an orphan train child placed with you. What will you look for and what expectations do you have?
Write An Orphan Train Poem. Focus on one specific aspect of the journey. Maybe your poem is about feelings. This might be your feelings as you board the train. Or it could be your hope for finding a good new family and home. It could be the loss of your biological family and their culture. Your poem can embrace happiness, sadness, and/or anger and disappointment.
Other Orphan Train Biographies
Orphan Train Riders History by H. Hurd
This site houses a brief biography and pictures plus links to other similar sites.
Not-To-Missed Links Section:
2) Other Orphan Train Pages
Other Biographies:
3) Riders on an Orphan Train to Kansas - 1911
4) Riders' Stories
5) Tracking the Past
6) Sarah Came on the Orphan Train in 1909: Sister Mary James' Story by P. Finney Jr., Clarion Herald (May 13, 1999)
More Orphan Train Resources
Canada's Home Children by S. Salloum from Adoptive Families Association of British Columbia
This article provides a Canadian perspective on the movement or relocation of orphans.
Champion of Children: Charles Loring Brace
This is an online biography of the man that is considered the founder of the modern foster care movement. He started the Children's Aid Society in New York and launched the "orphan trains" program.
Nodaway Valley Museum from Clarinda Chamber of Commerce (Iowa)
This page on the history of a southwest Iowa community includes a section on "The Page County Orphan Train Story."
Related Website:
2) Orphan Train Articles from Palo Alto Reporter (Iowa)
Orphan Train by P. Moyer
Learn about the largest migration of children in history.
Other Summary Articles:
2) New Homes, New Lives: The Era of the Orphan Trains by M. Pearson from
America's Past
3) Orphan Train by A. Warren, Special to The Washington Post [November 11, 1998]
4) Orphan Train: A Unique Heritage by J. Schlegel from Valley City Times-Record
5) Orphan Train Era by B. Higgins
6) Orphan Train Program by S. Eischen from The Algona Upper Des Moines
[March 27, 1980)]
7) Orphan Train to Dougherty
8) Orphan Trains
9) Orphan Train Riders Exhibit, Reunion Set for Saturday from Jefferson City News
10) Orphan Trains Tale An American Tragedy (Book Review) by D. Veach, The
11) Review of The Children's Aid Society of New York . . . by C.R. Inskeep
12) Tucson Author Alison Moore Explores The History Of The Orphan Train by C. Lowe
Orphan Train Genealogy by M.I. Holt from Ancestry Magazine [January/February 1995]
This (slow loading - be patient) article provides information about the orphan trains and the problems often found in tracing the genealogy of the children.
Orphan Train Movement from The Children's Aid Society
Here is a brief summary from the organization founded by Charles Loring Brace.
Related Websection from The Children's Aid Society:
2) History
Orphan Train Photos
This site houses a small photograph collection of children of the orphan trains.
Related Photograph Collections:
2) Lewis Hine Gallery
3) Jacob Riis Exhibition from Museum of the City of New York
Orphan Trains: The Author's Perspective
The author, Andrea Warren, provides her perspective on the orphan trains.
"Street Arabs" by M.G. Malvasi from Suite 101
Learn about Charles Loring Brace and the founding of the Children's Aid Society.
Related Articles at Suite 101:
2) Westward Ho! All Aboard the Orphan Train by M.G. Malvasi
3) Last Orphan Train by M.G. Malvasi
We Are A Part Of History: The Story Of The Orphan Trains by M. Patrick, E. Sheets, and E. Trickel
The authors provide brief excerpts and photos from their book.
Related Websites
All About the National Foster Parent Association
This site provides a brief history of foster care in the United States.
Related Website:
2) History of Foster Care from Have A Heart for Kids
3) History Of Foster Care In The United States from National Advocate
4) History of Foster Care in the U.S. by J. Miner
5) Improving the Well-Being of Children, Supporting the Healthy Development of Families
Orphanages an American Local History Network Project
Here you find some histories, photographs, orphan stories, and more.
Related Website:
2) Orphanages/Orphans from Legends & Legacies
Problem of the Children (The) Chapter XV from Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York
This chapter is the online edition for Jacob Riis's classic study of 19th century tenement life.
Other Chapters Related To Street Kids:
2) Waifs of the City's Slums
3) Street Arab, The
Voices of Adoption
This comprehensive site provides information, articles, resources, links, and more related to adoption.
Related Website:
2) Rainbow Kids
Websites For Teachers
Children's Literature and the Real World by M.E. Van Camp
This annotated bibliography from "Children's Literature and the Real World" contains links to web sites that provide supplemental materials for the book, "Train to Somewhere."
Orphan Train from PBS's American Experience
This lesson involves chronological thinking, historical analysis and interpretation, and historical research.
Orphan Train (Grade 4) by L. Tilmont
This lesson provides an interactive way for children to gather, infer and organize information in order to gain meaning.
Orphan Train Adventures (Grades 4,6, & 8)
Here you find lots of ideas of how to incorporate Joan Lowery Nixon's well known book into the curriculum.
Related Website:
2) Orphan Train Children (Grades 2, 4, & 5)
Orphan Trains (Grades 6-8) from Science NetLinks
The purpose of this lesson is to have learners examine social tradeoffs in the context of the Orphan Trains, and society's treatment of children whose parents can no longer care for them.
Possible Lesson Plans for the Iowa Orphan Train Project
Here is a collection of lesson 'starter' ideas.
Researching and Playing a Role: The Orphan Train
The students develop a process drama based on historical events. In the drama, a group of townspeople await the arrival of a group of orphans who are to be handed over to families in the town. The orphan train is delayed.
Related Sections:
2) Curriculum Links
3) Background
Stories of the Orphan Train Riders (Grade 8) by C. Hill from Technology Integration Projects for Children
Around the turn of the twentieth century, children from the East coast were “sent” to the Midwest on trains. Once these children were relocated, they went to live with local families. Read several personal accounts of actual Orphan Train riders.
Related Activity from Technology Integration Projects for Children:
2) History of the Orphan Trains by C. Hill
orphan train
'street Arabs'
Charles Loring Brace
half orphan
child abuse
unwanted children
'Placing Out' Plan
cheap labor source
needy children
oral history
street urchin
farming community
child labor
railroad maps
Children's Aid Society
living conditions
foster care
street kids
Created by Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson, 7/02.