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The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children.
Two charitable institutions, the Children's Aid Society (established by Charles Loring Brace) and later, the Catholic New York Foundling Hospital, endeavored to help these children. The two institutions developed a program that placed homeless, orphaned, and abandoned city children, who numbered an estimated 30,000 in New York City alone in the 1850s, in foster homes throughout the country. The children were transported to their new homes on trains that were labeled “orphan trains” or "baby trains". This relocation of children ended in the 1920s with the beginning of organized foster care in America.
Brace believed that institutional care stunted and destroyed children. In his view, only work, education and a strong family life could help them develop into self-reliant citizens. Brace knew that American pioneers could use help settling the American West, so he arranged to send the orphaned children to pioneer families. "In every American community, especially in a Western one, there are many spare places at the table of life," Brace wrote. "They have enough for themselves and the stranger too." Many were sent west to find families and new homes, on trains that became known as "orphan trains". Sometimes there would be 30 to 40 young children riding with two or three adults. The children ranged in age from 4 to 18 some even younger. Conditions on the early trains were poor, little better than cattle cars. In later years, conditions improved.
The children were encouraged to break completely with their past. They typically arrived in a town where local community leaders had assembled interested townspeople. The children would usually be put up on a stage-like podium for viewing and inspection. Children would often sing or dance to attract interest. The townspeople would examine the kids, perhaps feeling muscles and checking teeth, and after a brief interview take the chosen ones home. Many siblings were separated during this process because the foster parents wanted to take only one child. Some children became indentured servants to their host families, while most were adopted, formally or informally, as family members.
Between 1854 and 1929, more than 200,000 children rode the “Orphan Train” to new lives. The National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas maintains an archive of riders' stories and houses a research facility.
The program was not without criticism. In its early days, some abolitionists viewed it as a form of slavery, while some pro-slavery advocates saw it as part of the abolitionist movement, since the labor provided by the children helped to make slaves unnecessary.
The New York Foundling Hospital was established in 1869 by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul to help unwed mothers put them up for adoption in Catholic homes. One reason for the hospital's founding was fear that the Children's Aid Society would place the babies in Protestant homes. Often, mothers simply abandoned their newborns in a special basket at the door of the hospital and rang a special bell, then disappeared. By 1870 infant mortality had fallen sharply, producing a surplus of healthy children aged 2–4 in need of families. Catholic orphanages in the city were expensive and designed for older children who had families that could not afford to care for them. There was a strong demand from farmers who could not have children of their own, so the Foundling Hospital set up "baby trains" to take as many as a thousand children a year west to Catholic farm families recommended by local priests. If there was a problem, the Foundling Hospital sent out agents to move the child to a better family. The program lasted until the 1920s, when policy shifted to using orphanages and foster homes in New York.
The National Orphan Train Complex, also known as the National Orphan Train Museum and Research Center, is located in Concordia, Kansas. The Museum and Research Center is dedicated to the preservation of the stories and artifacts of those who were part of the Orphan Train Movement from 1854-1929. The museum is located at the restored Union Pacific Railroad Depot in Concordia which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Services offered by the museum include rider research, educational material, and a collection of photos and other memorabilia.
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