Need for the Orphan Trains

The orphan train movement lasted from 1854-1929. To understand why orphan trains were used, we first have to understand the state of New York City (where orphan trains began) during this time period.

New York City

The New York City (NYC) of the 1850’s was nothing like the city we know today. There were no skyscrapers, no subways, and only had a population of about half a million people. But by 1900, the population would reach one million, and by 1920, it would reach five million. What caused this drastic increase in population?

Mass Immigration

One factor was the large numbers of immigrants coming to the United States in the 1800 and 1900s. Many people, both inside and outside of the US were convinced that America was the land of milk and honey and a place where anyone could make a name for themselves. Many of these immigrants were fleeing famines, political unrest, religious persecution, and poverty. They often used most of their money just to reach the United States, so when they landed in NYC, they couldn’t afford to go any further West.

In 1900, Ellis Island was processing over 2,000 immigrants per day. Immigration reached its highest point in 1907, when 1,285,349 people were admitted to the United States. It wasn’t until 1921 that quota laws like we have today were instituted, limiting the number of immigrants to the US each year.

The Allure of the City

Immigrants weren’t the only people moving to NYC. In 1790, 90% of Americans live and worked on farms in rural communities. But, as industrialization increased, people began to move from small rural communities to cities where they could find work in factories. By 1890, only about 70% of people lived on farms, and by 1920, more Americans lived in towns and cities than in rural areas.

Living and Working Conditions

New York City was unprepared for the population growth it experienced in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Housing was hastily and poorly constructed to make room for all the new people arriving in the city. Many of these new buildings were overcrowded, making a perfect place for disease to spread. It was common for children and mothers, who spent the most time in these tenements, to become seriously ill, and sometimes they would die.

Thanks to new factory technologies, there were plenty of jobs to go around, but they were often dirty, dangerous, and low paying. It was common for people to be severely injured or become ill from their working conditions. Sometimes, they even lost their lives. Additionally, many children at this time had to work to help support their families. Some of them sold newspapers, made fabric flowers, shined shoes, or found other street or factory jobs.

For many working class families with already too-tight budgets, an illness, injury, or death could easily lead to ruin. If one parent died, the other parent often found it difficult to work full time and care for the children. Many families in situations like this had no extended family nearby, and were left with no choice but to place them in the care of an orphanage.

Welfare at the Time

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, public welfare programs that provided money, clothes, or food were incredibly difficult to qualify for. Instead, many people received aid from private charities and organizations, or they lived full time in institutions like poor houses, hospitals, or orphanages. Orphanages were often large, housing 200-2,000 children. These large numbers meant they could not provide individualized care for children.

Orphan trains provided a way for children to leave these large, overcrowded orphanages and live with families instead. People hoped that this would provide children with a better, more normal environment where they could be part of a family unit and receive individualized love and care.

Sources and Suggested Reading:

Brace, Charles Loring. The Dangerous Classes of New York, and Twenty years’ work among them. New York: Wynkoop and Hallenbeck, 1872.

Holt, Marilyn Irvin. The Orphan Trains: Placing out in America. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Warren, Andrea. Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Warren, Andrea. We Rode the Orphan Trains. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.