What connection could there possibly be between railroads and adoption? At one point, a train was more likely to deliver a child for adoption to waiting parents than a stork. A locomotive would pull into town with youngsters in need of a home and a family.

Today, we have adoption fairs; in years past, there were orphan trains. An interesting chapter in U.S. adoption history involves sending orphans off on trains in search of forever homes. During this time, both settlers and orphans were headed west to find a new and better life.

Between 1854 and 1929, up to a quarter of a million children from New York City and other Eastern cities were sent by train to towns in the Midwestern and Western states. The orphan trains were a humanitarian effort spanning 75 years; they served to remove children from slums and get them off the streets by transporting them to good homes out West. Life in the rural Midwest was deemed better for the children than life in a crowded Eastern city.

The United States’ first slum developed in Manhattan’s Five Points area where gang activity displaced residents. Epidemics of typhoid, flu, and yellow fever left many children there orphaned. Other children were simply abandoned due to their parents’ poverty, addiction, or illness. Some sold matches or newspapers on the street while others turned to crime in an attempt to survive. Orphanages were overflowing, overcrowded, and bleak. In 1854, child poverty was so severe that the number of homeless children in New York City was estimated as being up to 34,000. Police referred to these children as “street rats” or “street Arabs.”

Minister and well-known reformer Charles Loring Brace, a graduate of Yale University and Union Theological Seminary, took note of these sad conditions and decided to take action. Ordained in 1849 as a Congregational minister, he was drawn to New York City for its social activism. In 1853, at the age of 27, he founded the New York Children’s Aid Society. Brace believed institutional care stunted and ultimately destroyed children; moreover, he felt institutions only served to deepen the dependence of the poor on charity. He was convinced that a strong family life would benefit the orphans in ways which institutional care never could. And where better to find a good, solid family for a child than out West where settlers with a work ethic were moving?

The Children’s Aid Society turned to orphan trains as a solution. Rather than placing children in overwhelmed orphanages, the Children’s Aid Society would place them out of the area in a family setting. This program had several goals. By ridding the city streets of beggars, urban poverty and crime would be reduced. These children would have a better future with a real family. Finally, the children could help populate the West and fill a rising need for labor in this developing area of the country. Orphan trains were seen as mutually beneficial; American pioneers would receive much-needed help and children would receive life in a family setting.

Brace’s efforts to send homeless children to live with Christian farming families in the West were supported by wealthy New Yorkers. Mrs. John Astor donated $50 to this cause in 1853. The society also received publicity help from Horatio Alger. Additionally, the railroads provided special discounts on fares for children placed on the orphan trains.

Brace referred to his idea for the relocation of children as his “Emigration Plan.” The Children’s Aid Society set up a specific department with the responsibility for sending kids out of the city to be adopted. This department was called the Emigration Department or the Home-Finding Department.

Orphan trains left from New York City and Boston. The first orphan train departed Boston in 1850 and carried 30 homeless children to New Hampshire and Vermont. This trip was arranged under the auspices of the Children’s Mission To Children Of The Destitute; Joseph Barry was the organization’s first agent and served as a chaperone for the inaugural trip. In October 1854, 45 kids from New York City were sent by train to Dowagiac, Michigan, by the New York Children’s Aid Society.

Although called orphan trains, many of the children riding the trains were not orphans. At least a quarter of these children had two living parents still in the city. Accordingly, opponents of Charles Loring Brace called him a “child stealer.”

When the Children’s Aid Society sent children off on a train to find a forever home, they were given a bath, dressed in new clothing, and gifted with a Bible before boarding. Agents of the Children’s Aid Society accompanied them as chaperones. Children were not always told where they were going, leaving many frightened and confused.

Conditions on the train may have been better than what the children were used to on the street, but they were still bad. The cars were overcrowded and unheated, and the children were not always fed more than once a day, mostly sandwiches. Anecdotal reports by individuals who rode these trains as children indicate they sat on hard wooden seats and had to sleep on the floor. Some have likened the accommodations to cattle cars.

On an orphan train journey, the train would start out full of children. It would make a number of pre-planned stops along the route. Advertising was placed in advance in the local paper of a scheduled stop advising children would be available to be taken home with a family. Screening committees, composed mostly of men, were set up in a destination town to vet possible families for the children. Committee members were usually a doctor, a newspaper editor, a store owner, a clergyman, and a teacher. Some matches were made before a train arrived; others were selections made on the spot.

When a train came to an advertised stop, the children got off the train. Sometimes they were taken from the depot to a local playhouse where they were put up on the stage for viewing by families who might want to adopt them. This practice is believed to be the origin of the phrase “up for adoption.” At other stops, the children were merely displayed at the train station by placing them on a podium for viewing and inspection. Sibling groups could be separated if a family at the train’s destination only wanted one child.

The parents taking a child from the orphan train had to sign a contract with the Children’s Aid Society. The terms of the contract required them to raise the child as their own. The parents agreed to provide proper food and clothing for the child and give him a basic education. Children so placed were allowed to leave a home if they were uncomfortable with their placement.

Some farm families viewed children from the trains as cheap labor. As a result, the orphan trains were criticized by abolitionists for supporting slavery. These detractors described the displays of children from the orphan trains as “slave auctions.” They saw adopting out as merely a form of indentured servitude. Nevertheless, the orphan trains were seen by others as a part of the abolitionist movement since child labor made slavery unnecessary. Brace himself was an outspoken abolitionist.

Orphan trains came under fire from some for being anti-Catholic. Many of the children on the street in Manhattan were Irish Catholic; many Irish immigrants were poor and unable to feed their children. Sending them to live in the Midwest with Protestant families meant these children would be raised outside of their faith.

Despite criticisms of the orphan train program, in 1910, the Children’s Aid Society reported that 87 percent of the placements from the orphan trains worked out well. Success stories even came out of the orphan train program. Two boys sent out West in this fashion went on to become high-level politicians. Andrew Burke later became governor of North Dakota and John Green Brady grew up to become the territorial governor of Alaska. Although he could not be deemed a success story, an infamous person supposedly may have ridden an orphan train. Westerners may not have welcomed this boy, Henry McCarty, if they had known he would turn into Billy the Kid, the most wanted man in the West.

Although originally conceived to send children out West, orphan trains traveled to 45 states as well as Canada and Mexico. During the early years of the program, Indiana received the largest number of children from these trains.

Orphan trains ran during a time before the federal government’s involvement in child protection and welfare. However, in 1912, the U.S. Children’s Bureau was established to help states support children and families. Then, around the 1920s, states began passing laws prohibiting the placement of children across state lines.

Historical events were the death knell for the orphan train program. The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression rendered Midwestern families unable to feed or provide for another child. The beginning of the Great Depression effectively ended the program. Families were struggling to feed themselves much less another mouth. The last orphan train left New York City on May 31, 1929, bound for Sulphur Springs, Texas.

Although it had its flaws, the orphan train program served as the modern-day successor to the American foster care system. Charles Loring Brace’s belief that children are better cared for by a family than in an institutional setting is the basic tenet of today’s foster care. In fact, Brace is considered the father of the modern foster care movement.

The orphan trains no longer run, but interest in them remains. Mary Ellen Johnson founded the Orphan Train Heritage Society in Springdale, Arkansas, in 1986. The Society hosts orphan train reunions in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Oklahoma. The National Orphan Train Museum in Concordia, Kansas is dedicated to preserving the stories and artifacts of participants in the Orphan Train Movement and keeps records about the movement.

The media has helped the American public become aware of the Orphan Train Movement. In 1979, CBS broadcast a TV movie called The Orphan Trains. A New York Times bestseller penned by Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train, used the historically significant movement as the springboard for her novel. The main character in this work of historical fiction is a woman who was an Irish immigrant abandoned in New York as a child and placed on an orphan train headed to Minnesota by Children’s Aid Society.

Charles Loring Brace died in 1890, but his work lives on in today’s world. His ideas were the foundation for the current foster care system in the United States. Moreover, the Children’s Aid Society which he founded is still in operation. Now known as Children’s Aid, the organization is one of the country’s oldest and largest children’s nonprofits. With an annual budget of $100 million, Children’s Aid provides, among other programs, comprehensive adoption and foster care services for disadvantaged New York City children.

Adoption today is vastly different from the practices encountered by the orphan train riders between 1854 and 1929. Children are no longer placed on trains and shipped off to faraway places en masse in search of forever homes. Now adoptive parents are more likely to be the ones searching for a child and traveling to obtain custody of their new family member. Rather than screening committees, licensed home study providers are utilized to vet prospective adoptive couples and approve them for placement of a child. Court proceedings rather than contracts are utilized to provide legitimacy to the placement arrangement.

Regardless of the changes in adoption practice since the last orphan train pulled away, the Orphan Train Movement set a good foundation for current adoption and foster care practices. The benefit of a child being placed in a home with a family rather than in an institutional setting is now universally accepted; it is not the radical idea it was back in the days of Charles Loring Brace. Then, as now, there are children who find themselves in difficult circumstances and in need of a good home. Orphan trains are no longer utilized, but they were an important part of the journey of evolving adoption practices. The vehicle for getting a child to a forever home has changed, but the desired destination is the same—a nurturing family setting for a child in need.