The Orphan Trains Delivered Homeless Children to Rural Farmers

By | July 2, 2018

test article image
Group of foundlings to be sent on 'Orphan Trains' to the South and West. (Getty Images)

New York City in the mid-1800s had a real problem. There were too many homeless and orphaned children living in the streets. By some estimates, up to 30,000 kids without parents that roamed the city, begging for food, stealing, and loitering. Some of the children took odd jobs, like selling matches and newspapers, to earn money for food. For protection, groups of orphaned children banded together, forming gangs. Most people wanted to rid the city of its feral children epidemic, but there seemed to be no humane solution. That is, until Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society, proposed shipping the orphans to America’s farms. 

test article image
(Iowa Public Television)

Orphans Were Sent to Work on Rural Farms

Brace’s idea was to solve two problems at once. The orphaned children in New York needed homes and someone to look after them and the rural farmers needed help on the farms. He believed that the farm families would open their homes and hearts to the homeless children and welcome them into their families as one of their own. In exchange for room and board, the city children would be expected to help out around the farm, just as the farmer's own children did.

On October 1, 1854, the first Orphan Train arrived at its first stop, Dowagiac, Michigan, and a worker with Brace’s Children’s Aid Society told a crowd that gathered in the rail yard that they could adopt any of the 45 children on the train, proclaiming that the boys would make great farm hands and the girls could do housework. No one checked the references of the adopting families and the children were parsed out.