The Orphan Trains

By Denis Fessler

November 10, 2004


The community of Wien Missouri was settled in the latter part of the 19th century, primarily by individuals of German heritage.  Early residents left their families in Germany, Indiana, and other states, and made their way to the fertile fields of north-central Missouri to establish new lives.  But some arrived as children with no families other than perhaps a sibling or two.  They came from New York City by way of what we call now the Orphan Trains.



The Beginning


New York City in the 19th century suffered from the same problems as many large urban areas, then as now – overpopulation, unemployment, poverty, prejudice, drugs, crime.  Also at that time hundreds of thousands of immigrants were pouring into New York City each year, often penniless upon their arrival.  The Statue of Liberty proclaimed: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”.  And so they came.  This exacerbated the already significant problem of homeless children – orphans, runaways, or abandoned.   Even some caring parents left their infants on the doorsteps of the wealthy, hospitals, and the churches, hoping they might find better lives.  An estimated 30,000 children were abandoned on the streets in New York City in 1854[1].


To help remedy this situation, Charles Loring Brace, a 26-year-old Congregational Minister, founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853.  Children were taken off the street, cared for, educated, and taught a trade.  But the need soon outgrew the means.  So he took up the plan that Boston had tried ten years earlier – sending orphans “West” on trains to families at the various stops along the way who were willing to adopt them.  The first train was sent out on September 20, 1854 with 46 ten-to-twelve-year-old boys and girls. Their destination was Dowagiac, Michigan.  All 46 children were successfully placed in new homes.[2]


This system endured for 77 years, from 1854 to1930.  By the 1870’s the New York Foundling Hospital, run by the Catholic Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul, began sending orphans to Catholic families.  Together, an estimated 150,000-400,000 children were sent West on the trains1 - from Indiana to Kansas, Minnesota to Texas.  As many as 100,000 orphans were placed in Missouri.  Some 50 became members of the Wien community.



The Process


The Children’s Aid Society would send notices to local postmasters along the train’s route announcing the time and date a trainload of orphans would arrive in each community.  Those notices would be posted in post offices, stores, churches, and newspapers.  Typically 25-35 children were placed on a train under the supervision of only 1 or 2 adults (usually a man and a woman), called “agents” (note the railroad term).  Initially the children’s ages ranged from 3 to 17, although later this was narrowed to 5 to 12.  Sometimes agents preceded the train by several weeks to organize a selection committee and to screen prospective foster parents.


Shortly before the day of departure (oftentimes just the night before) the children would be told that they were going on the train, and they would be bathed, their hair tended to, and given new clean clothing.  Then they would board the train, and off they went to their new destiny.  It was a long trip from New York, but many of the children were able to see for the first time fields of crops and animals, orchards, forests and large open areas.


Upon arrival in one of the projected towns, they would disembark and go to a meeting place such as a church, hotel, courthouse, opera house, or the train depot, and be lined up on a stage or platform at the front of the room.  Usually, a local town “committee” had been at work prior to the arrival of the train, trying to line up good potential families for the expected children.  At this time, members of the community would be allowed to visit with (and inspect) the children.  If a match-up was made between adult and child, and the local committee and placing agents approved, a written agreement was signed.  Then the child would leave the group and go on to his/her “new home”.  Contact continued thereafter by semi-annual letters and occasional visits by representatives of the Children’s Aid Society.


Overall the system worked very well.  The orphans had a better chance at life with placement in a new home “out West”, than they did remaining in New York.  Thousands of children were removed from lives on the street or in orphanages and placed in loving families.  A 1910 report of the Children’s Aid Society gave the final destinations of the children they had sent out on the Orphan Trains.  It listed all 48 States plus the District of Columbia and Canada, with the majority going to the Midwest.  There were some problems, but these should not detract from the successes of the Orphan Trains.  Children were shipped with no certainty that they would be adopted.  Some were not, and returned on the train to New York and the orphanage.  The children had to face the ordeal of separation from home, leaving familiar surroundings and perhaps parents, brothers and sisters.  Some left New York with siblings but were separated upon selection, often to never see their brothers and sisters again.  English-speaking children were placed with foster parents who spoke another language (e.g., German), and vice-versa.  Sometimes children went from one family to another, to another.  Foster parents were also allowed to return children who did not “work out”.  Not all orphans were treated well.


A record of the Children’s Aid Society noted that in 1871 more than 3000 orphans were transported at an expense of $31,638, which included train tickets, food and the agent’s salaries1 – approximately $10 per child!



The New York Foundling Hospital

Charles Brace required that the adopting home be Christian.  However, there were complaints that Catholic children did not always go to Catholic families.  This, in part, led the Catholic New York Foundling Hospital to begin sending children on their own version -- the Mercy Trains.


Sister Irene Fitzgerald, a Sister of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul, opened the New York Foundling Hospital to help address the monumental problem of homeless and unwanted children.  It was incorporated on October 8, 1869.  Three days later on October 11th, the Feast of the Maternity of Our Lady, Sister Irene and her two companions, Sister Teresa Vincent and Sister Ann Aloysia, moved into a small house at 17 East 12th Street.  Although they expected to spend three months in preparing for the opening of the institutions, an infant was laid on the door-step that very first night.  Before January 1, 1870, the proposed opening date, they had received 123 babies.  When they finally opened the doors formally, a white cradle was placed in the foyer of their building where mothers could anonymously leave their children to be cared for by the sisters.[3]


The story of Sister Irene and The New York Foundling Hospital runs parallel with that of Rev. Brace and the Children’s Aid Society.  However, there were a few key differences.  The Sisters worked in conjunction with Priests throughout the Midwest and South in an effort to place these children in Catholic families, whereas the Children’s Aid Society requested that the children they placed be given spiritual training but left the choice of religion up to the “adoptive” family.  Also, the children from the Foundling Hospital tended to be younger than those from the Children’s Aid Society.2


Probably the largest difference in how the Foundling Hospital placed their children is that the children were not sent out to be “randomly” adopted from a town hall or opera house, but were “requested” ahead of time by families who wanted a child.  Requests would be sent to the New York Foundling Home for a child (for example: a 2 year old, blue eyed, blond haired girl), and then the Sisters would do their best to find a “matching” child.  They would then send the requesting family a “receipt” for the child telling when and where the child would arrive by train.  This notice requested that the family be at the station ahead of time so as not to miss the train.  For each child, the sisters of the hospital made a suit or dress with his or her name and the name of the new parents pinned on the inside of the back collar.  When the train arrived, the new parents were to have their “notice of arrival” with them which they were to present to the Sisters.  This notice had a number on it that would match up with a child on the train.  Once the match was made, the parents would sign the “receipt” for the child, and they were free to leave with their new child.2


Chances are that most of the orphans adopted by the Catholic families in Wien came from the New York Foundling Hospital



The Railroads


The first railroad line across Missouri was built in 1859 from Hannibal to St. Joseph.  This is known today as the Burlington-Northern line that still runs through New Cambria and Bucklin – most likely the final stop for the orphans who were adopted by families around Wien.  It was not until 1868 that the first train bridge across the Mississippi River from Illinois to Missouri was built at Quincy.  The other railroad line in the area of Wien, known today as the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe, came down out of Southeast Iowa, crossed the Burlington-Northern at Bucklin and went through Marceline on its way southwest.  Stations were ultimately built in New Cambria, Bucklin, and Marceline, but a station was not required for the Orphan Train.  The trains made “whistle stops” between stations to pick up and drop off passengers, mail – and orphans.



The End

Not everyone embraced the concept of the Orphan Trains.  As noted earlier, there were several problems.  In Missouri, a law was passed in 1901 forbidding the orphan trains, purportedly because the Children’s Aid Society “is pouring carloads of children into the state without properly supervising them”.1  Apparently the law was never enforced because it did not stop the trains.


The last of the orphan trains came to Missouri in 1929.  By then most states had passed stricter adoption laws and policies.  Many Eastern states and cities assumed more responsibility in caring for orphans, and so the trains were no longer needed.  Also, the onset of the Depression made it more difficult for families to take on the responsibilities of additional children.


But the Orphan Trains left a lasting legacy.  Thousands of children left the streets and orphanages of New York, and other large Eastern cities, to find homes with loving families.  It was an inexpensive way out of solving juvenile crime.  But its greatest triumph was proving the value of foster families, and for that millions of children have benefited since the last train headed west out of New York City carrying homeless children to a new life of hope.



For More Information

Many books and articles have been written about the Orphan Trains.   One of the best, and a source of much of the information in this article, is Orphan Trains to Missouri, by Michael D. Patrick and Evelyn Goodrich Trickel, published in 1997.   It is available in libraries and can be purchased on the Internet.   Articles on the Internet that I found particularly good include:


A History of the Orphan Trains, by Connie DiPasquale


The New York Foundling Hospital


The History of New York Foundling Hospital


One can also contact the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc., 614 East Emma Avenue, No. 115, Springdale, AR  72764 , 501-756-2780.



This article is written in memory of my great-great-aunt Christine Harmon, who came to Wien on the orphan train in the 1890’s and was adopted by my great-great-grandmother Therese Biegel.


[1] Michael D. Patrick and Evelyn Goodrich Trickel, Orphan Trains to Missouri

[2] Connie DiPasquale, A History Of The Orphan Trains

[3] The New York Foundling Hospital,