Orphan Trains and Their Precious Cargo

Orphan Trains and Their Precious Cargo

By the mid-1800s, the street corners of New York City were home to several thousand homeless, abandoned and orphaned children. These poor unfortunates were often the sons and daughters of newly arrived immigrants, separated from their parents or relatives in the confusion and chaos of Ellis Island and forced by circumstance to fend for themselves. Although some found refuge in orphanages and sanitariums, these facilities were inadequate in number and often lacked the resources to provide for more than a handful at a time. Those that remained on the street frequently turned to theft and burglary, or even prostitution as a means of survival, thus compounding the city’s already rampant crime problem. Clearly a solution was needed for the good of both New York City and its orphan population.

Relief came with the establishment of the Children’s Aid Society in 1853 by one Charles Loring Brace. Brace was a theologian and a reformer who’s answer to New York’s orphan problem was a practice known simply as “placing out.” The society would gather likely orphans and send them west by train in groups of anywhere from six to one hundred individuals, stopping at predetermined destinations where it was known foster homes were available. The American West was at this time in critical need of laborers in both agriculture and industry, and many families were eager to provide a foster home to a child who was willing to work. Children would be periodically checked on by an agent of the society and were required to write the society at least twice a year describing their experiences. As with any foster care system, placing out could be a hit-or-miss affair¾many children would bounce from home to home and some were returned to New York as undesirables. There were many success stories however, with orphans finding supportive homes and loving foster families. Some were actually adopted into the families with which they were placed. All faced the challenge of a new life in unfamiliar surroundings, without the comfort of friends, and relatives left behind.

The orphan trains of the Children’s Aid Society ran until 1929. This text presents a brief history of the phenomena and the intriguing account of one of its agents the Rev. Mr. Herman Clarke. He entered the employ of the Society in 1900, and was a tireless devotee of the children entrusted to his care. His ministry was in Dodge Center, MN, and he was later placed in charge of Children’s Homes in Cincinnati, OH and Battle Creek, MI. Over the years he traveled thousands of miles on the rails with his orphan charges, and received as many as two-thousand letters a year from them. In the twilight of life, the reverend began to compile scrapbooks for his grandchildren detailing both the family’s genealogy and his years spent working with the society. Six out of the seven scrapbooks have been discovered by the author and they form the basis of this history which is told primarily in the words of Rev. Clarke and his orphans. The text is enriched by numerous photographs of orphans and their foster families, as well as facsimiles of advertisements published by the society, and a special section of orphan train poetry.

About the Author
Clark Kidder's grandmother, Emily Reese, was sent west on an orphan train with Rev. H. D. Clarke in 1906, so he came by his interest in this topic quite naturally. Mr. Kidder is the author of three previous books: Marilyn Monroe UnCovers, Marilyn Monroe - Cover to Cover, and Marilyn Monroe Collectibles, 1999. When Mr. Kidder is not writing, he and his wife and two sons farm two hundred acres in Wisconsin.

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