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

Children waiting to board this orphan train
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.

Advertisement requesting homes for 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.