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Orphan Trains

orphan train photo


by Tom Riley <>

New York City in the 19th Century could be a brutal place for a child.  A magnet to immigrants and the poor in search of jobs, the city was also a haven for gamblers, thieves and murderers.

When adults fell victim to alcoholism, prostitution or drug addiction, the children were the ones who suffered the most.  Temperance organizations such as the American Female Guardian Society stepped in, establishing orphanages and homes for unwed mothers and battered women: "homes for the friendless."  Some of the children in the homes were orphans, but some were "surrendered" by parents who were unable to take care of them.

Charles Loring Brace, a Connecticut minister was appalled at the misery of orphaned and abandoned children living in deplorable conditions on the streets of New York City.  He founded the Children's Aid Society and felt the answer to homelessness was to be found in the fresh air and kindheartedness of the America Farmer.  The Children's Aid Society used a contract when placing children with families throughout America and advertised extensively in the American Female Guardian Society magazine called the Advocate since it church affiliated and had a nationwide readership.

Over a 75 year period (1854-1929) more than 273,000 children were transported by rail across America from New York City.  The New York Foundling Hospital headed by the Sisters of Charity used a legal indenture form rather than a contract.  Both legal documents listed the requirements to be met for the child's welfare and for family guidelines.

The Orphan Train Era saw the largest mass movement of children in American History.  When one considers that Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia were involved in transporting children by rail to foster homes across the country the total number of Orphan Train Riders is in the 400,000 to 600,000 range.

I discovered a treasure trove of Orphan Train memorabilia while researching a home I had been placed as a child.  The home was called Happy Valley School in Pomona, NY.  It was in existence from 1911 to 1974.  It was founded by a group of Temperance workers who founded The Five Points House of Industry in the toughest section of New York City.  While researching my book on Happy Valley School I came across 26 boxes of information related to the Orphan Train Era in an old barn.  I cataloged the information and later wrote two books called THE ORPHAN TRAIN RIDERS:

Orphan Train Riders: A Brief History of the Orphan Trail Era (1854-1929) with Entrance Records from the American Female Guardian Society's Home for the Friendless in New York

Orphan Train Riders: Entrance Records from the American Female Guardian Society's Home for the Friendless in New York, Volume 2

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