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The Orphan Train

An excerpt from "American Adventures" See ad on p. 86.

By 1854 the sight of a train clicking across the Michigan countryside was not that unusual. The townspeople of Dowagiac and neighboring farmers had grown used to the locomotive roaring through their farmlands and pausing long enough to unload a shipment of goods before moving on. But this frosty morning was different. The train was coming to unload the strangest cargo any train had ever hauled to the small town. The cargo was not the usual farm tools or furniture, not woolen sweaters or heavy boots, but a shipment of forty-seven orphan boys.

On board the train the orphans pressed their cleanly scrubbed faces against the windows and stared out at a strange, new world. They were from New York City, and they had never seen a countryside before. First one boy and then another would shout out in surprise at what he saw -- a herd of cows, a field of corn, a hayfield. Whenever someone shouted out a fresh discovery, the other boys would scurry from one side of the train to the other.

The idea of moving orphans out of New York City and into farm country belonged to a twenty-six-year-old minister from Connecticut named Charles Brace. Hoping to do all that he could to help poor people, he settled in New York City. New York was a bustling city of a half million people in the 1850’s. The young minister noticed how each New Yorker seemed caught up in just trying to earn enough money to make a living.

Brace noticed something else. Somehow, lost in the bustle of activity, were thousands of boys and girls -- "children of the streets" -- he called them. Homeless, toddlers to teenagers, the children wandered about the city meant for grown-ups. Barefoot, usually in rags, soaked in the dust and grime of the city, the children foraged for food by day and slept in rubbish-filled alleys by night. These orphans of the street begged, stole or formed gangs to prey on innocent citizens. Some of them peddled newspapers, apples, rags -- anything to earn a few pennies.

Brace discovered that the children had no parents, or had been deserted. A report by the New York Chief of Police in 1852, reported that many of these children were forced to steal or rob in order to have enough food to eat. A few years before, Brace had visited some prisons in Europe. He felt certain that the young boys and girls he saw wandering the streets would become wretched prisoners like the ones he had seen, or they would go insane, unless -- unless what?

America already had a number of what were called "orphan asylums." The people who ran these homes for children without parents made a point of telling everyone that they taught boys and girls right from wrong. Brace however, did not believe in orphan asylums. He argued: With so many children at an asylum, how could the few grown-ups there give each boy and girl the amount of care, love, and affection each one needed?

Brace knew the problem a man and wife faced in a big city like New York. The child meant an extra mouth to feed at a time (when) the young couple barely had enough money to feed themselves. And so, adults sometimes simply let their children wander about on their own. On the other hand, a young boy or girl on a farm, Brace believed, meant an extra pair of hands to milk the cows, thresh the wheat, till the soil, or feed the pigs. A child on a farm worked and contributed to the family and felt good about it.

In 1853 Brace and some other men living in New York City started an organization called the "Children’s Aid Society." The Society rounded up 46 young boys who had been living on the streets. At the same time, the Society found some farmers who lived around Dowagiac, Michigan, who said that they were willing to take a child to live with them. Arrangements were then made for workers from the Society to travel to Michigan with the orphans.

It sounded like a good idea, but would it work? Brace had seen the train off, then sat back and waited. It was easy enough for the people to say "Yes we’ll take the children", but once the orphans arrived how many of them would change their minds? The answer came a week later.

The boys had traveled by boat and train, and picked up one more orphan on the way. They had arrived at the town on an early Sunday morning, tired, sleepy-eyed, but excited. The townspeople had greeted them warmly, and, what is more, all 47 boys had been placed in homes. When Brace got the news, one thought went through his mind -- this is only the beginning.

He was right. In the 35 years that Charles Brace headed the Society, "Orphan Trains" -- for that is what the trains were called -- carried 70,000 boys and girls from the slums of the cities to farms all over the United States. The pattern stayed the same. Townspeople would let the Society know that they were interested in receiving orphans, and then announcements would be posted telling people in the town when the orphan train was due to arrive.

Once a train came in, the boys and girls were brought to a large hall or church. There the sight of so many children without homes touched the hearts of the farmers and townspeople. And what about Brace’s belief that if the orphans were given good homes they would not become criminals? The Children’s Aid Society kept records. Very few of the boys and girls ever grew up to become criminals. Instead, they grew up to be farmers, workers, teachers, engineers, lawyers, judges, and even state governors. The orphan trains stopped running by the late 1800’s, but Charles Brace’s idea of helping others inspires Americans to this day.

Copyright © 1998 Brooke-Richards Press. All rights reserved.