The Orphan Train Experience

After the success of the Children’s Aid Society’s first orphan train, other organizations began sending their own orphan trains west. Each organization had their own way of doing things, but most orphan train trips followed a similar pattern.

The Agents

Before a company of children left New York, an agent visited the selected community two weeks prior to the placement. They arranged for newspaper advertisements, hotel accommodations, meeting locations, and a local committee. They would then return to New York to travel west with the company of children and at least one other agent.  

The Agents of the Children’s Aid Society and other organizations were individuals dedicated to the children in their care. They worked hard to find them good homes and to keep siblings in the same community if they couldn’t place them in the same home. They checked on the children regularly and stayed in contact with them even after the children were of age. Being a placement agent was much more than a job to them; it was their passion.

Video made by past curator, Shaley George, 2021.

The Local Committee

The Children’s Aid Society knew they needed a system to check the backgrounds of potential foster parents. They utilized community members’ knowledge of their neighbors to inform the agents about foster parent applicants. In the early years, the agent would select members of the local clergy to collect applications and advise them as to who would be good foster parents for the children.  In the decade before the turn of the century, the agents moved from utilizing clergy to long time citizens of that community and the town founders as approval committees. For the last twenty-five years of the program, agents selected the influential members of the community: bankers, merchants, doctors, lawyers, and elected officials.

These men (and some women) were responsible for distributing applications to interested parties, gathering the completed applications, advising the agent on which homes would be the best, and watching over the children after the agents went back to New York.

The Placement

In the first quarter century of the program, most of the placing out meetings, where families could meet and select children to adopt, were held at churches, some hotels, and occasionally a school or court house.  Later in the program the meetings were held in opera houses, court houses, and meeting halls to accommodate the large crowds that usually gathered for the event. The agent and company of children would typically arrive in the community on a Friday. Then they would take the children to a hotel to clean up and change clothes. The meeting would generally start mid-morning. At the meeting location the children lined up on a vantage point. The agent in charge would speak about the mission of the Children’s Aid Society, each child, and the expectations of the foster parents. Children were not “chore boys” or “kitchen drudges;” they were to be sent to school, church, Sunday School, and taught to be useful citizens. Usually there were far more applications submitted than there were children available. Those parties whose applications had been approved by the local committee could select a child to take home.

Orphan train rider Mamie Rose remembered her orphan train journey: “Before we left Brooklyn… we were taught table manners and dressed in civilian clothes. We were each given a complete outfit of clothes. I remember what I wore on that trip, a brown coat with a cape and brass buttons, a Buster Brown hat in red… I felt like a Princess.

“We didn’t know where we were going. We had a man and lady accompany us. We rode the train. I remember we stopped overnight in Chicago, we had sandwiches, which was a treat.

“We landed in Rock Port, a small town in northwest Missouri. We went to the opera house as soon as we arrived, which was about noon. The opera house was full of people, who came to see and take us home with them… All the children sat in rows on the stage.”

“When people were called to come up to the stage and make their choice, there was a real old looking man who had a long, white beard and bushy white hair, his name was E. J. Million. When Sarah and I saw him, she said, ‘I hope I don’t go home with him,’ and I said the same. He did pick out Sarah, but she started crying, and said, “I won’t go without Sammy, my brother.’ So another man whose name was Hughes, said I’ll take them both, and the old man took me.”

Account written by Mamie Rose and recorded in Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories, Vol. 1, published by the National Orphan Train Complex.

Checking Up

After a placement, the agent stayed in town to visit each child in their new home to make sure that it was a good fit for both the child and the foster family.  If the home was unsatisfactory, a new home was sought. An agent returned to check on each child at least twice within the first year of the placement. An annual visit followed until the child was formally adopted or aged out of the program. Females aged out at 18 and males at 21. During annual checkups, teachers, Sunday School teachers, and pastors in the children’s lives were interviewed about the children’s welfare. The local committee was also on hand to watch over the children and report any issues to the society. Foster parents and children were also expected to write two letters a year to the Children’s Aid Society.

Unfortunate Cases

Most organizations that placed children out by orphan trains did their best to make sure children found good homes. However, sometimes a child would be overlooked or not checked up on properly. Some orphan train riders were placed in homes where they were not allowed to attend school and/or were made to work long and unfair hours doing farm or household chores. In the worst cases, children were abused.

We estimate that about 80 percent of orphan train children found decent homes where they were treated fairly. But it’s important to remember the other 20 percent who were placed in less than ideal and sometimes dangerous situations.