They rode the Orphan Trains

New York's homeless children sought better lives in the Midwest. Many found the home they never had with families in Missouri and other states.

by Jim McCarty

Children from New York's orphanages came to the Midwest by the trainload in a huge migration that lasted 75 years. Estimates put the number of children relocated at 150,000 to 400,000, with some 100,000 coming to Missouri.
Picture the plight of the poor immigrant coming to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In most cases they left poverty and oppression. Unfortunately they often discovered conditions were little better in the new world
The immigrants found few jobs. There was no labor union, no sick leave, no insurance. A steady supply of willing replacements meant low wages and appalling conditions. Worse, dangerous jobs meant numerous accidents and no safety net for those who suffered disabilities.
Small wonder the children of these families suffered terribly. Many found their parents unable to care for them, and in desperation turned to the streets to sell newspapers, beg for food or steal to get by.
In 1854 estimates put the number of homeless children in New York City at 34,000. Clearly, something had to be done for this class of people called "street Arabs" or "the dangerous classes".
Moved by what he saw around him, Charles Loring Brace founded the Children's Aid Society of New York in 1853. Ordained as a Methodist minister, Brace decided at age 26 that he wasn't cut out to preach. He found his calling instead among the cast-off waifs of New York City.
He tried to establish schools to teach them skills they would need to find work. But attendance was poor and few learned a trade.
No amount of orphanages could hold all the homeless children. But Brace had an idea. He wanted to send as many children as possible west to find homes with farm families.
"In every American community, especially in a western one, there are many spare places at the table of life," Brace wrote. "There is no harrassing struggle for existence. They have enough for themselves and the stranger too."
Brace's plan was simple. He would send notices to Midwest towns announcing the time and data a train-load of orphans would be arriving. The trains would leave New York City carrying the children and two adult agents from the society.

A company of homeless children from the East will arrive at
TROY, MO., ON FRIDAY, FEB. 25th, 1910
These children are of various ages and of both sexes, having been thrown friendless upon the world. They come under the auspices of the Children's Aid Society of New York. They are well disciplined, having come from the various orphanages. The citizens of this community are asked to assist the agent in finding good homes for them. Persons taking these children must be recommended by the local committee. They must treat the children in every way as a member of the family, sending them to school, church, Sabbath school and properly clothe them until they are 17 years old. The following well-known citizens have agreed to act as local committee to aid the agents in securing homes:

Applications must be made to, and endorsed by, the local committee.

An address will be made by the agent. Come and see the children and hear the address. Distribution will take place at the
Opera House, Friday, Feb. 25, at 1:30 p.m.
B. W. TICE and MISS A. L. HILL, Agents, 105 E. 22nd St., New York City. Rev. J. W. SWAN, University Place, Nebraska, Western Agent
The advertisement on which the above is based appeared in the Troy Free Press Feb 11, 1910.
Troy is in Lincoln County.

As the train made its stops the children would be paraded in front of the crowd of onlookers. Some needed another farm hand. Others genuinely wanted to give a child a home. The train left a small part of its cargo at each stop until finally all the children found homes.
The first such "orphan train" went to Dowagiak, Michigan, in 1854. The trains would run for 75 years with the last one pulling into Trenton, [Grundy County] Missouri in 1929.
Missouri's location as a railroad crossroads made it the perfect destination for many trains. Researchers estimate 150,000 to 400,000 orphans were sent west. As many as 100,000 may have been placed in Missouri.
Brace's group wasn't the only one sending orphans to the rural Midwest. Catholic Charities of New York also got into the act, perhaps because they saw Catholic children being placed in Protestant homes. In 1869 the Sisters of Mercy started the New York Foundling Hospital. Soon the Catholic group was sending its own "mercy trains" west.
While following Brace's lead, the Catholic trains differed in that they found homes for the children before they left New York. The parish priest served as the screening committee. He would announce the trains from the pulpit and those who wanted a child signed up, specifying whether they wanted a boy or a girl.
One of the orphans who came to Missouri from the Foundling Hospital was Irma Craig Schnieders. Irma arrived in Osage City [Osage County] in May of 1901 when she was just shy of her third birthday. She had the number 32 pinned to her dress. The George Boehm family from nearby Taos [Cole County] had a matching number.
Irma told her children that she was pampered by her new family. She loved them and in return was loved by her foster parents. In the home German was spoken, and Irma had to learn the new language.
Her foster mother died when Irma was 10 and she went to live with a second family. She was accepted by the community, went to St. Francis Xavier School until eighth grade and was class valedictorian. She went to college at what was then the Warrensburg Normal School, became a teacher, married and raised eight children.
Hers was a happy tale, as was that of Mary Ellen Pollock, an orphan train rider who spoke June 14, 1997 at a reunion of orphan train riders and their descendents in Taos.
Mary Ellen came to Sedalia [Pettis County] in 1923 because the agent, the Rev. J. W. Swan, knew her grandparents who lived there. She was five months old when she rode the train west, and a couple from East St. Louis adopted her. They never told her she was adopted.
One day while her mother was at a church meeting Mary Ellen opened the strongbox she knew was in the closet. Inside she found her adoption papers. She was around 10 years old, but kept the secret without ever telling her parents she knew.
"Back then children were seen and not heard," she said. "No one in the family ever mentioned it though they must have known. It didn't bother me. I had a good life."
She remembers that whatever she asked for she usually got, "not because they were rich but because they did without."
Others were less fortunate. Jessie Teresa Martin of Hays, Kansas says orphans like her were "a disgrace to the town. We were told, 'no one likes you; your mother didn't.'"
Jessie was 9 days old when her mother took her to the New York Foundling Hospital. When she was 4 she rode an orphan train to Kansas and found a new home. While she didn't feel loved, she was treated well.
In 1979 Jessie began searching for her relatives. That's when she discovered her parents had been Jewish, and that they had named her Jessie. (Her foster parents named her Teresa.) "My mother was Jewish. They took all religions (at the hospital) but you didn't leave until you were Catholic."
Today Jessie embraces both faiths, wearing a cross and a Star of David wherever she goes. "There was a time when I didn't have a relative in the world," she says. "Now I have 14 grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren."
No one knows why the orphan trains ended. A 1901 Missouri law banning them certainly wasn't effective because it was never enforced. Most likely the social programs that came about in the 1930s made them unnecessary.
In many cases the orphan train experiment was successful, in others the right match of foster parent and orphan didn't happen. There were instances of abuse and neglect, forced labor and not enough food.
But there were far more who opened their doors for all the right reasons, like the Markway family of Wardsville [Cole County] which had 12 children but found room for one more. The orphan trains represented one of the most tragic and at the same time heartwarming stories in Missouri's history.
The story of the orphan train has a place in the history of just about every Missouri town located anywhere near a railroad. These tales of kindness and cruelty, of hope amid the despair are being preserved so that others can know the orphan train story.

From Rural Missouri, July 1997. Reprinted with permission.

For more information about the orphan trains, contact The Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, 614 East Ema Av., Suite 115, Springdale, AR 72764.

Orphan Trains of Kansas

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This page last updated 27 December 2000