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A System Like No Other: Orphan Trains

Starting in 1854 and lasting until 1929 a system which become known as the Orphan Trains came into being. It is estimated that over 300,000 children ranging from babies to teenagers were transported by railroads to every state and territory in the Union.

Between 1800 and the early 1900s, cities on the eastern seaboard experienced a dramatic increase in their population due to the arrival of thousands of immigrants from around the world. Also due to the American Civil War and economic conditions, many from interior America flocked to the cities seeking opportunities provided by industrialization. Cities weren't prepared for this sudden increase in their population, lacking medical, welfare, educational and building infrastructure.  Many families fell on hard times. According to 1850 newspaper reports, some 40,000 orphans, homeless and unwanted children, roamed the streets of New York City.

Charles Loring Brace, born in 1826, a graduate of Yale University and an ordained Methodist minister, established the Children's Aid Society in 1853 at Five Points Mission in the heart of New York City's worse slum area. He dedicated his work to helping impoverished children better their lives. He strongly believed that the best way to help these children was to get them out of the city.

Mr. Brace set up a system in 1854 whereby children would be transferred out of the city westward and given to people on the open frontier to love and raise as their own. Children were sent in the charge of one or two agents who looked after them. On any particular train route, towns were notified and asked if they'd like to receive a group of children. If they welcomed the idea, a town committee of leading citizens would be organized to review applicants. Posters and advertisements would be circulated telling that a number of children would be given away at a church, theater or sometimes the train depot platform to anyone who wanted one and had filled out an application. Children were lined up and selected. Sometimes not all were taken and they were sent to the next town. Agents were required to come back and check on the children's well-being after placement.

In 1869 Sister Irene Fitzgibbon founded the New York Foundling Hospital, a Catholic organization. It worked on the same principle except members of a parish would order a child according to age, sex, and/or appearance. The Foundling Hospital would then attempt to match the order with a child at the orphanage. Children would be sent to the town and displayed at the church. If you did not like the child chosen for you, you could decline and send him or her back or they could be sent to another town on the chance someone else might select them. Instead of an agent checking on the child, the local priest who knew his parish would keep in touch with that child and visit their home.

There were many different organizations over this seventy-five year period (1854-1929) that sent children west seeking new homes. The Children's Aid Society was the first, and sent approximately 150,000 children. The New York Foundling Hospital sent 54,000 children. The Boston Little Wanders sent about 10,000 children. Other agencies sent anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand children.  Over the seventy-five year period it is estimated approximately 300,000 children were sent west on Placing Out trains, Mercy trains, Baby trains, emigrant trains and other similarly named trains.  At some point the name Orphan Train was connected to the system, and it came to represent all such trains carrying children west to new homes.

The Iowa Connection

The first Orphan Train left New York in 1854 with forty-six boys and girls between the ages of seven and fifteen -most of them ten to twelve years old and the majority orphans. They traveled in a box car with no windows and only rough benches to sit on. The children were shipped to a small village north of Detroit, Michigan called Dowagiac. Thirty-seven were given away and nine of the youngest were taken to Chicago, and then sent to Mr. Townsend in Iowa City. (E.P. Smith, Agent's ledger, Children's Aid Society 1854.)

Charles Collins Townsend, an Episcopal missionary, established The Orphan's Home of Industry in 1854 in Iowa City, Iowa. Records indicate that his first shipment of children included nine children from the East who were the remaining orphan train children originally sent on the first train to Dowagiac, Michigan. There were also thirteen girls and four adults in his first shipment. It is likely Mr. C.C. Townsend and Mr. C.L. Brace knew each other.  Townsend planned to collect orphaned, homeless and unwanted children from the streets of New York City and send them to the Home of Industry to educate them with the expectation they would later be placed-out to farmers and others in the community. It is estimated some 500 children were sent to the home between 1854 and 1868 when it was closed due community pressure arising out of the perceived lawlessness of the children.

Iowa Railroad Routes traveled

The first children brought to Iowa, nine of whom were on the first Orphan Train to leave New York City in 1854, were brought from Chicago on the Rock Island Railroad to the shores of the Mississippi River across from Davenport, Iowa. Since there was no bridge across the river at that time, they were ferried across to Iowa.  No railroad existed in Iowa, except a small gauge mining trackage in the Dubuque area, so the children were taken by wagon to Iowa City. The first railroad was completed to Iowa City the following year, 1855.

The first Mississippi River bridge was built at Davenport, Iowa in 1856, and soon bridges appeared at Burlington, Muscatine, Clinton, Dubuque, and Marquette, opening access to Iowa. In 1867, the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad become the first railroad to reach Council Bluffs from Clinton, running across the middle of Iowa. The Rock Island Railroad followed closely from Davenport, spanning Iowa. The Burlington & Missouri covered the lower portion of Iowa from Burlington to Council Bluffs.  The Dubuque & Pacific and Illinois Central from Dubuque reached Sioux City in 1870. The last railroad to complete its line across northern Iowa was the Milwaukee Railroad from Marquette, Iowa to Iowa’s western border in 1876.  From 1855 to 1876, over twenty-one years, five railroads spanned Iowa from the northern to the southern border.  In the years to follow many more tracks were laid, making Iowa one of the most abundantly railed states in the Union. 

Not far behind the first train into an Iowa town was a train bearing children from either the New York Children's Aid Society or the New York Foundling Hospital. Ninety-five percent of Iowa towns, large or small, were visited by the Orphan Trains between 1854 and 1929.

The number of children brought to Iowa is unclear.  The best estimate is that approximately 10,000 children were brought to Iowa.  In the early 1900s the Children's Aid Society reported 6,000 children had been placed in Iowa.  The New York Foundling Hospital reported about 3,000 placements in Iowa, and other agencies reported approximately 2,000 placements in Iowa.  The only list available is a list of 1,800 names researched by Madonna Harms, historian for the Iowa Orphan Train records, prior to her death in 2013. The Harms records indicate that every county in the state of Iowa was visited by the Orphan Train between 1854 and 1929.

Some Iowa Towns Receiving Children.

Dougherty, Iowa is an Irish Catholic community located in Cerro Gordo county. In 1890 a train from the New York Foundling Hospital with 24 children arrived and found new homes for all.

Northwood, Iowa was visited twice by Children's Aid Society Orphan Trains in 1913. Once on July 17 leaving 14 children and on Sept 24. leaving 12.

Trains visited Mason City, Iowa with children from the Children's Aid Society in 1871, 1889, and 1913 for a total of around 36 children.

Orphan Train Riders’ Stories.

Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories. Volumes 1-6 (Orphan Train Heritage Society of America)

Iowa's Bandmaster

John Arser was born in the Italy mountains in 1865. His mother died and his stepmother gave him away to a man passing through their village at age 3. John ended up on the streets of Paris, France in 1869 playing the triangle begging for money. The man that had taken him had six other children he taught to beg for money also. In 1870 the man took three of the children to New York and put them on the street begging. John got lost and ended up at the Children's Aid Society. Soon he was on a train headed west. In 1872, he, along with seven other children, arrived in Cresco, Iowa and were given away to families from the area.

John learned to play the cornet in his new home. Being a natural musician in a family that loved music, John soon begin playing other instruments. He joined a vaudeville show traveling the Midwest and throughout the South. Later he directed a circus band. On returning home to Osage, Iowa, he started and directed bands in Stacyville, and Osage, Iowa, St. Ansgar, Ionia, Lawler, and Summer.  He later served as band director in Park Rapids, Minnesota. Beginning in 1900, John Arser directed bands in 19 towns in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. He also traveled through Iowa with his band. He died in 1941 and is buried at Lime Springs, Iowa.

Forest City, Iowa Rider

Ruth Hickok arrived in Forest City, Iowa in October 1917 on an Orphan Train accompanied by twelve other children. Deserted by her father and mother, she was placed in a New York orphanage for Norwegian children at about 2 years of age. Ruth spent three years in the orphanage before being sent west on the train. At Forest City, she was taken by an elderly couple. When she wouldn't stop crying, her foster mother locked her in the cellar for the night. Luckily Miss Comstock, the Children's Aid Society agent, stopped by the next day and found out how she was being treated and took her away. Ruth was given to another family who took her in and raised her in a loving home. Ruth tried to track her family down but failed. She married and had two children, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

[author’s note:  “I was in the 5th grade in Danville #9 in Worth county when Mrs. Hickok came and spoke to our country school. She told of her days in the orphanage, trip to Forest City and experience of being rejected by those she first met.” DSW.]

          “Other kids called me 'trash' because of where I come from. It hurt. I was a loner as a child. I always liked families with lots of kids. It seemed more like the orphanage, I suppose.”

From the Leon Press (Leon, Iowa) 24 November 1904:

A company of nine orphan children were brought to Leon last Friday under the auspices of the New York Children's Aid Society for the purpose of placing them in suitable homes. They were in charge of B.W. Tice the New York City agent; H.D. Clarke the Iowa agent; and Anna Laura Hill, the matron of the institution. The children are placed on trial for six months. They are to be well clothed and treated, given moral and educational advantages and must remain in the family until they are eighteen year of age. The Society has a right to remove a child for reasonable cause and will again take charge of those found unsatisfactory. A large crowd gathered at the opera house on Friday at 2 o'clock p.m. and the distribution of the children occurred as follows:

James Decker, aged 8 years, was placed with Milo Moore and wife of this city. The boy was born near Kingston, N.Y. Parents are dead. His little sister and brother were present but were taken to Osceola as they could not be placed in the same family.

Nora Hendricks, 11 years old, was born in Marbletown, N.Y. The father died and mother deserted the child. Whereabouts are unknown. She was given to Mrs. Martha Homes, of Decatur.

Ethel May Duncan, 6 years old, was born in Kingston, N.Y. She was abandoned by her parents; has a nice but old uncle residing at Port Ewan, N.Y. She was been an inmate of the Kingston orphan asylum and was given to Mrs. Fred Orchard of Decatur.

Geo. Robert Killoran, 10 years old, was born in Ogdensburg, N.Y., and was given to Isaac K. Fisher of Decatur. The boy's sister, Marian Killoran, 13 years old, was placed with Rev. and Mrs A.M. Pilcher of this city. The parents of these children are living but can't be found.

Maggie Estella Remore. 12 years old was born in Ogdensburg N.Y.  The child was placed with Mrs. Lucy Ray.

Bertha Virginia Bennett, 19 months old, was placed with Mrs. E.H. of Decatur. The child's father died in Canada a year age. The mother, a member of the theatrical profession, made a legal surrender of the child to the Society as she could not take care of it. She is a fine-looking young woman of 22 years of age.

Madeline Heller, 9 years old, was born in Brooklyn. Her father is dead and her mother deserted her. She was placed with Daniel Kline, Jr.

Belle Quince, 12 years old, was taken from the Five Points Orphan Asylum of New York City. She has a splendid intellect and a fine ear for music. She was taken by Mrs. J. Statzell.

Margaret E. Hunt, aged 10 years, was an inmate of the Five Points Orphan Asylum. She has a sister and brother in Sidney, Iowa. She was given to Mr and Mrs. J.W. Ulm of Eden township.


Suggested Reading on the Orphan Trains:

The Dangerous Classes of New York by Charles Loring Brace.
The Children of the Poor by Jacob Riis.
Darkness and Daylight or Lights and Shadows of New York Life by Helen Campbell.

Books written after 1900 Nonfiction:

The Orphan Trains-Placing Out In America by Marilyn Irvin Holt.
The Orphan trains and Newsboys of New York by Renee Wendinger.
Last Train Home by Renee Wendinger.
Orphan Trains and Their Precious Cargo by Clark Kidder.
The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction by Linda Gardon
We Rode the Orphan Trains by Andrea Warren.
Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story by Andrea Warren.

National Orphan Train Complex, 300 Washington Street, P.O. Box 322, Concordia, KS 66901. https://orphantraindepot.org/

Fiction Books:
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.
Mail Order Kid-Orphan Train Rider by Marilyn June Coffey.
Orphan Train Bride by Teresa Lilly.
Forgetting Tabithan by Julie Dewey.
Searching For Home by Christina Vogt.