The Orphan Train Experience

  • Sumo

What was it like to ride the Orphan Trains?

What it was like to ride the orphan trains depends upon when you rode them.  Some of he first were little better than cattle cars with seats and make-shift bathroom facilities.  Later, as more money became available, the riders were able to ride in better cars.  The last riders, like my mother, was able to ride in Pullman cars [sleeping cars].

Picture 30 to 40 very young children traveling with two or three adults.  These children varied from babies to children in their teenage years.  Most of these children had no idea of what was happening to them.  They may have been told that they were going out west, but they really had no idea what that meant.  Most of them had never been outside of New York City.  The children, that were older than babies, often were frightened, sometimes excited over the new views outside the train windows, and often were very confused over what would happen next.

They lost any means of contacting their relatives back in New York.  They were never to speak, or think of their families again.  They were to completely start over with new families.  The older children would remember their old life.  The babies would have no memory of life in New York.

When the trains pulled into the stations, the caretakers would get the children cleaned up ready for inspection.  The children would climb down the tall train car steps onto the platform, and march to the meeting place.  Sometimes this meeting place would be a baggage wagon on the train platform – sometimes it was the local church – sometimes it was the local opera house [what we would call the movie house now].  Almost always, the children were up on a stage of some kind.  This because known as being Put Up for Adoption.

Many times the children were inspected like they were livestock.  Muscles were felt.  Teeth were checked.  Sometimes the children would sing or dance trying to attract the attention of new mothers and fathers.  It was frightening to have complete strangers looking them over and touching them.  If they were lucky, someone chose them.  Papers were signed and they went home with their new parents.  While a local committee made sure that the new parents were fit to be parents, it was not much of an inspection compared to today.

One of the saddest parts of this procedure was often the new parents could not take more than one child.  If brothers and sisters were lucky, they were taken by families in the same area so they could visit.  If they were not lucky, brother, or sister, would get back on the train without them and go many miles further down the track.  It was not uncommon for brothers and sisters to lose track of each other completely.

Was life better because of riding the Orphan Trains?

For the most part, yes.  Back in New York City, these children were either living in orphanages, which were little better than military schools, or they were living on the streets trying to support themselves.  There was no welfare to help them out.  There was little in the way of foster care.  Most of their relatives were back in the old country [France, England, Germany, etc.].  As a result, most of the grandparents and uncles and aunts were not here in America to help take care of these children.  Many of the children turned to minor crimes in order to get food and shelter.  They had no medical help when they were sick.  They had little opportunity to make something out of themselves.  Most would have either died, or have been put in prison, work houses, etc.  While separating the children like this was not the best idea in the world, it was much better than leaving them to their fates in New York City.

On the farms, and towns of the United States, there was room, food, parents, and safety.  There was a chance to go to school.  They could grow up and become someone of which America could be proud.  Many of these children obtained loving homes and parents.  I wish I could say that they all did.  That simply is not the truth.  In some cases, the children were taken in to be farm hands and mothers helpers.  Some were taken in to help out in the shops.  These children provided cheap labor.

Would the riders encourage this kind of placing out now?

Most would not.  The Orphan Train Movement was the beginning of children’s rights.  From the trains came the children’s protection laws, school lunches, medical treatments, and the beginnings of the welfare system.

Today’s system tries to keep the children with their birth parents.  If that is not possible, local foster parents are provided.  Where possible, brothers and sisters are kept together.  There is now a safety net to help protect the children.  Would the riders prefer to go back to the old system?  No!  They realize that the new system is not perfect – that it needs fixing – but it is better than breaking up families.

The Orphan Trains were needed at the time they happened.  They were not the best answer, but they were the first attempts at finding a practical system.  Many children that would have died, lived to have children and grandchildren.  It has been calculated that over two million descendants have come from these children.  The trains gave the children a fighting chance to grow up.

Written by D. Bruce Ayler
Orphan Train Rider Descendant

Back to Orphan Train History