All Aboard The Orphan Train: How One Man’s Idea Saved Thousands Of Children

All Aboard The Orphan Train: How One Man’s Idea Saved Thousands Of Children

Megan Hamilton - March 6, 2019

Adoption, as we think of it today, has changed drastically over time. So has the meaning behind the phrase “putting a child up for adoption.” And we have reason to be glad for this because this phrase belies a sad truth. Nowadays, expectant parents choose their baby’s adoptive parents. Careful plans are made by their birth families and “open” adoptions, which allow children to keep in contact with their birth families aren’t unusual. It’s a distant cry from the childhood adoptions of the mid-1800s when children were auctioned like cattle by families who usually hoped to use them for hard labor.

Children were forced onto orphan trains and shuttled to one city after another where they were “put up” on stages or tall stumps at auctions. Here, they were forced to perform and were inspected by prospective adoptive families. The history of these orphan trains spans from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, a time when cities were bulging with orphaned children. In New York City, circa 1850, there were 30,000 homeless, abused, abandoned and orphaned kids. Children wound up in these tragic circumstances because their parents were too poor, or were drug addicted, or because of the nasty illnesses that were common in the U.S. at this time.


All Aboard The Orphan Train: How One Man’s Idea Saved Thousands Of Children
These ankle boots were worn by Cecelia (Kimmick) Krumrey as she rode the orphan train to St. Louis in 1910. The Krumrey family who adopted her were expecting a girl named Emma, but the two girls exchanged jackets along with the ribbons that noted their identification numbers. The family later realized they’d brought Cecelia home instead of Emma, who wound up with a family in Illinois. Image license Courtesy of The Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis via Wikimedia Commons

Philanthropist Charles Loring Brace knew he had to do something to help these youngsters, some of whom had turned to crime in order to stay alive. Brace had founded the Children’s Aid Society, and he was full of ideas. But central to this was the idea that children need a stable family. He also believed hard labor was essential for their well-being. But by trying to provide better lives for the children and reduce the circle of theft and violence in cities, he adopted ideas that were draconian.

All Aboard The Orphan Train: How One Man’s Idea Saved Thousands Of Children
A young Charles Loring Brace, age 29. Image license Public Domain U.S. by Charles Loring Brace via Wikimedia Commons

Brace was born to a prosperous New England family in 1826. At the time his father John Brace was the principal of Litchfield Academy. In 1832 young Charles moved with his family to Hartford, Connecticut, where his father directed a female seminary and later became an editor for the Hartford Courant. Homeschooled by his father until he entered Yale University, Brace taught for a year before enrolling in the Yale Divinity School. Additionally, he studied at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and was ordained as a Congregational minister in 1849.

The young man travelled with friends through Europe in 1850 and 1851 and spent this time learning about philanthropic and correctional institutions. After marrying Leticia Neal in 1854, Brace felt drawn to missionary work. Soon after, he took a position as a Methodist Minister and was director of the Five Points Mission. The mission was located in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods.

All Aboard The Orphan Train: How One Man’s Idea Saved Thousands Of Children
An orphan train heading west. Image by The National Orphan Train Complex via Window On The Prairie

All Aboard The Orphan Train!

Brace also embarked on a short side-career as a journalist, writing about New York City’s poorest neighborhoods for The New York Times. But it wasn’t long before Brace and Pease became disillusioned in working with destitute adults. The two men became convinced that many of these unfortunate people had reached a point of no return, having been “poisoned” by a life of continual strife and poverty. So they turned their focus to poor children, believing this was the opportunity for real change.

The hard-working reverend had seen children forced to beg for money or to sell newspapers or matches on the streets. Others were homeless and unemployed. Wandering the streets, these kids earned the nickname “street Arabs” or “the dangerous classes,” because poverty inevitably forced them to join street gangs. Tragically, even children as young as five years old were sent to jails and imprisoned alongside adults. Local police often referred to these children as “street rats,” and Brace, along with many colleagues fervently wished to give these children better lives.

All Aboard The Orphan Train: How One Man’s Idea Saved Thousands Of Children
An advertisement announcing the upcoming arrival of adoptable children in Troy, Missouri on February 25, 1910. Image license Public Domain, U.S., by J.W. Swan via Wikimedia Commons

It was now 1853, and this was when Brace and his fellow ministers founded The Children’s Aid Society. Just 26 years old, he was given the position of chief officer of the organization. He held that position for the rest of his life, until his death in 1890. He worked as an advocate for radical change. His ideas were progressive, and he did much to instigate reforms for working women, needy families, and poor and homeless children. And he did all of this at a time when services for these people were almost nil. While he was still new in his job he helped provide homes for thousands of the city’s homeless newspaper boys. He started farm schools, industrial schools and opened a summer home for children on Long Island. But his biggest endeavor and the one he became known for was “placing out.”

He knew he wanted to give these kids an alternative to the impoverished lives they were leading. He truly believed that institutionalized care stunted and destroyed young lives. The best way to help a struggling child, he believed, was to provide gainful work, education, and a nurturing family atmosphere. And he thought the kids would do best in a mid-west farm family with strong Christian beliefs.

So, in 1854, he began his “placing out” program. A group of 46 boys, accompanied by an agent, travelled by train to Michigan. The boys were taken to a local church where townsfolk were told the children needed homes. And within a week, all of the boys found homes with local farm families. The placing out program was a huge success, and over a period of 75 years, the society rescued more than 100,000 children from lives of poverty.

All Aboard The Orphan Train: How One Man’s Idea Saved Thousands Of Children
The Great Depression began in the U.S. in 1929. It was a catastrophe felt around the world and it effectively derailed the orphan train program. This image shows a crowd gathering at New York’s American Union Bank during a bank run at the beginning of the Great Depression. Image license Public Domain by the Social Security Administration/Social Security History via Wikimedia Commons

Orphan Trains Were Derailed By The Great Depression

These kids were a boon for farmers in the rapidly expanding mid-west, and between the years of 1853 to 1929, 200,000 children were shuttled by train across the country. Brace was confident he’d done a good thing. And for the most part, he did. But for some children, their situation was far from rosy.

But he was a man who did not believe in social services. Handouts, he said, only fed the poor and didn’t solve the problem. Hard work, he believed, and highly structured schedules were what was needed to break the cycle. While he realized these children were adopted to be forced into hard labor, he set up strict standards in the hopes that adopted children would be treated the same as biological children. He set very strict standards for families who were allowed to adopt and tried to set up a system where these kids were checked on regularly. But over time, the system fell by the wayside and some children were treated like slaves, or abused in other ways. In other cases, children didn’t receive the education or the promised job training. And sometimes siblings traveling on the trains together were separated by their adoptive families. Ultimately some children ran away, either because of abuse, or the change from city life to life on a farm wasn’t a transition they were able to make.

Despite this, the program was still a rousing success, but with the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, much of the world plunged into the Great Depression, and most families could no longer afford an extra child. Fortunately, there were still options, in the form of group homes, or foster care – which was now available for children in need. And Brace is now considered the father of modern foster care. Thanks to his kindness and concern, the foundation for modern-day foster care was laid, and over time, additional sectarian and state governments became involved in placing children in homes. Three states were at the vanguard of this movement: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota. Prior to 1865, Massachusetts began paying board to families who took in children who weren’t old enough to work as indentured servants. In 1885, Pennsylvania passed the first licensing laws that made it illegal to care for two or more unrelated children without a license. And South Dakota began providing subsidies for the Children’s Home Society after its creation in 1893 to benefit public childcare work.

As the new century began, social agencies began supervising foster parents and records were now being kept. This meant children’s needs were now being considered as they were placed in new homes, and the federal government began providing support for states to inspect foster homes. Additionally, services were provided for biological families to make a child’s return easier. Foster parents were now professionally regarded as part of a team helping to provide permanency and stability to dependent children.

While the number of adoptions started out small, the statistics have since blossomed, with 135,000 children adopted each year in the United States. An additional 428,000 kids are in foster care, all because of a young minister in 1854 who wanted to help homeless children.


Here are our sources:

What Is The History Of ‘Putting A Child Up’ For Adoption? Melissa Giarrosso. 2019

The History Of Adoption/Ancient Adoptions Were Not Always In The Interest Of The Child. Beth Rowen. Infoplease 2000-2018

National Orphan Train Museum. Suzanne. Window On The Prairie. July 16, 2010.

The American Orphan Trains. Will Moneymaker. Ancestral Findings. 1995-2009.

History Of Foster Care In The United States. The National Foster Parent Association.

Adoption Statistics. The Adoption Network Law Center. 2019.