THE ORPHAN TRAIN by Audrey M. Smith

(This paper was presented at the Children's Literature Association's 24th Annual International Conference sponsored by the University of Nebraska at Omaha, June 19 through June 22, 1997. The topic of the conference was "The Child and the City.")

In literature, one of the dominant themes is searching -- the search for identity, the search for a place, the search for a new beginning. This conference is entitled "The Child and the City" and that seemed a little bleak to me when I first heard it because in much of literature, the city represents the negative. Good things happen in the West, bad things happen in the East. Crime, corruption, overcrowding, dominate the city; independence, health, individuality flourish in the West. Huck Finn decided to "light out for the territory", Holden Caulfield fantasizes of living in a mountain cabin. One of the people who believed in the potential of the West was Charles Loring Brace, the originator of a historical phenomenon named The Orphan Train. My goal today is to give you a picture of the Orphan Trains, share the first children's book about this event and maybe pose some questions about what it may mean about children and about the theme of searching. For me, the experience with the Orphan Train began 24 years ago when I got married. As I joined in family dinners with my new husband, I heard the phrase for the first time. My husband's grandfather was an orphan train rider. I had never heard of it. This was possibly just another family story, part fact, part fiction -- Like Nan being chased by a cow or Chris insisting everyone call him Kit after his childhood hero Kit Carson. But I listened and learned. I learned the story of Charles Loring Brace. Brace came to New York City in the 1850's as a young minister and social worker. He immediately noticed and was disturbed by the large number of homeless children living in the streets. Some were beggars or sold flowers, some were paperboys or prostitutes or pickpockets. According the historians, the population of New York City was 500,000 in 1850. The number of orphans was estimated to be 30,000. Where did they come from? This accompanying chart shows the main causes of homelessness in this time period. ---parental death due to disease, industrial accidents, starvation ---neglect, abandonment, prostitution ---massive overpopulation in the New York area due to extensive immigration in the mid 19th century. ---a general attitude among the "higher society' that those in the "lower classes' didn't deserve help, that they were poor because they chose not to help themselves, therefore they got what they deserved."

The first factor named is disease and I would like to tell you a story about this. In New York in 1849, there was an epidemic of Asiatic cholera. Thousand of people died. One person who had the disease was a young girl named Catherine FitzGibbon. She was in a comalike state and was examined by an exhausted doctor who pronounced her dead. The burial was not to be for several days-- again because of overworked undertakers. During that time, Catherine FitzGibbon lay in a casket and could hear her family planning her funeral . She had dreamed about homeless, lost children reaching out to her and she vowed if she survived , she would devote her life to caring for foundlings. As the undertaker prepared her for burial, he noticed her eyelid flicker and called in a doctor who found Catherine to be alive. We will come back to Catherine's story.

As for these other factors, we need to remember that there were no labor unions in this time period and no safety regulations to protect the worker. Policemen were trained to check alleys and trash bins for abandoned newborns. Also massive immigration is occurring not only from European countries but also from rural areas. It is estimated that 1000 immigrants a day were arriving from Europe. One woman even told me that she had read that the children whose parents had died on the Titanic were brought West on Orphan Trains. And finally, the comment about the lower classes still seems prevalent today. You could probably find a similar comment on yesterday's editorial page. Brace started the Children's Aid Society. He was a very literate person and an expert in public relations. This man wrote articles, spoke out and made people realize that these children had to be helped or the state would be burdened with criminals in years to come. Does that sound familiar? Brace had two main beliefs: any extra hand was always welcome on the farms in the Midwest and there was always food for another child at those self-sufficient farms. He would get the children out of the city, away from the crime and filth and poverty and place them in what he saw as the Christian homes of the Midwest. In 1854, the first train went out of New York with 47 boys bound for Michigan. Agents were sent ahead to the targeted area to advertise the train's arrival and, possibly, for a local committee to oversee the placement. A social worker accompanied the children and each had a new set of clothes and a name tag. The children knew they were on their way to find a new home but many did not understand what that meant and were probably filled with fear about his new place. Brace did not insist on adoption. In fact, he discouraged it until the child and the family had tried each other out. The children were sometimes sent back to the agent, given to another family and, supposedly, some even worked their way back to New York. But a success rate of 90 % was claimed. The idea was widely copied. Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston all started their own trains. They system continued for the next 75 years with estimates as high as 250,000 children being transported. Probably as famous as Brace's Society was the foundation that is known as the New York Foundling Home. Remember Catherine FitzGibbon, the girl who was almost buried alive? She joined the Sisters of Charity and became Sister Irene. After several years in other positions, she was given the blessing of the diocese and five dollars to start a home for abandoned children. A young woman, Sister Teresa, was to help her. A house was located and the two had several months to get things in order to open the home. But that plan changed the next morning when they opened the front door and found a baby abandoned on their doorstep. They were on their way. Sister Irene's story is an amazing one, and the Foundling Home is still a part of New York.

The ideal for all the agencies was to send social workers out every year not only to distribute more children but to check on those who had been placed. The evidence is scanty that this was done in every case but it seems that a tremendous effort was made to revisit homes and check on the children.

. For this presentation, I interviewed 7 people who either remembered the Orphan Trains or who are descendants or riders. I don't think I was ever as touched as I was when I visited Eleanor O'Brien who lives here in Omaha and is 88 years old. She has the papers of indenture that were issued. When I opened the packet, I saw a small square of a linen-like fabric pinned to the bottom of the form. It had the name of Leocadia Smith typed on it and a birth date. This was the tag that Eleanor, as she was later named, wore to Omaha when she was 22 months old, in September of 1911. Her family had kept it for her and it made me shiver to see that tiny scrap of fabric. Distribution was a simple process really. The train stopped in a prearranged community. The children were usually given a bath at a local hotel, put on their new clothes and were taken to the meeting place. People would be gathered and ready to see them. Eleanor O'Brien was told of the event. Remember she was only 22 months old at the time but she was told the story by her foster mother. When she made she made eye contact with her foster mother, she held her arms out to her. The woman immediately went to the sister who had traveled with the children and asked if she could have Eleanor. Eleanor laughed when she told me this and said "That sounds like something I would do. I want you. I hope you want me." Another unusual story was told to me by the daughter of an Orphan Train Rider. Her mother was a toddler when she was brought out and for some reason, she was given the wrong coat before distribution. She had a name tag that said Florence. A family took her and only later noticed tags on other items that said Jean. They wrote to the Foundling Home and were told the correct name was Jean but they had grown used to calling her Florence and when they adopted her, that was kept as her name. But that's not the end of that story. Within the last 30 years reunions have been started in just about every state involved with the Orphan Train. Riders gather every year and share stories but also establish and renew friendships with other Orphan Train riders. Somehow, Florence met the Florence whose coat she was wearing that day of the distribution. These reunions, of course, are providing people with a place to find others, to experience belonging to this unique group of people. Efforts are being made to preserve the stories and descendants of riders also attend the reunions hoping for clues to the origins of their parents. Although, Anne Rose of Auburn, Nebraska told me "I don't know what all the hullaballoo is about." She had a wonderful home and family and has no desire to research her roots. She found the place where she belonged.

Art Smith, Orphan Train Rider,
(In His Own Words)

At age 71, I was shocked to discover that in December 1922, my eleven companions and I were not just an isolated 12 orphans--wending our way westward by train to find a home. We were part of the greatest children's migration known in the history of the World, possibly numbering as many as 350,000. Based largely on this migration, scores of school children in 38 States this year have put together History Day Projects and are eagerly contesting for honors. It all began with Charles Loring Brace, a young Methodist minister and social worker in New York City. Brace, a young graduate of New York's Union Theological Seminary, appalled at the sight of 10,000 ragged and homeless boys and girls earning their living on the streets of the city in any way possible, good or evil, determined to do what he could to salvage their lives. After studying remedial methods in Europe and th U. S., Brace persuaded some New York business men to finance The Children's Aid Society, which still flourishes at 105 East 22nd Street, New York City, 10010. Deciding there were far too many children to care for all of them in New York City, Brace devised what he called his "Placing-Out" plan to send these children where he was certain they would be needed and cared for--to the ver increasing number of Western farms. Thus, in 1854, Brace's plan was activated, and very soon was eagerly copied by many child-care organizations in cities, as far West as Chicago. For the majority of the children it turned out to be a successful way to find loving parents and a fine new life. However, reports of children who endured the pain of being parted from siblings, or had other negative experiences, in later years contributed to the rise of a growing opposition to Brace's plan. This, and the negative effects of the depression which caused many farmers to lose their farms, brought the program to an end in 1930.

For the past nine years I have sought reasons why I did not read about all of this in school. Though dutifully chronicalled by able writers and the press, the details never seemed to become widely known or to be considered for school history books. One authority suggested that history is generally written and recorded about adults, and not about children. It remained for a researcher, Mary Ellen Johnson, to discover some of these children--as adults, prompting her to establish the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc. located at 614 East Emma Drive, Springdale, Ar, 72764. Through her Society she records the many stories and calls us "Orphan Train Riders". The migration, though still neglected by history book publishers, began to draw increasing attention from writers, actors, and producers. Excellent fiction and technical books, films tapes, and documentaries appeared, and riders and their descendants also began to tell their stories in schools, or wherever eager listeners gathered. By these witnesses the story of this great "Children's Migration" lives on.

In conclusuion, and on behalf of all riders, I want to praise Cobblestone Publishing, Inc. (noted for it's famous American History for Kids) for featuring us so beautifully in a classic April 1998 issue of Cobblestone magazine. In this issue you have gone a long way toward marking The Orphan Train Era as authentic American History.

Submitted by Arthur F. Smith, Orphan Train Rider, 1922

| Main Page |

|Back To Orphan Trains|