Available August 1, 2016
From 1853 to 1929, The Children’s Aid Society and other organizations like it placed 250,000 orphaned children with families using trains to deliver the children to new families along railway lines. Sometimes children found loving homes and parents who brought them into their families and treated them as members of their household. The Children’s Aid Society sought to address the overwhelming poverty and difficulties placed on children in large cities whose parents abandoned them or died. It is the predecessor of the modern-day foster care system. Sometimes the children were seen as laborers or servants and treated far differently from a couple’s other children. The book focuses on the stories of seven orphans whose lives were transformed by their ride on an orphan train.
Reading this book made me think a little bit about the movie Newsies, specifically the parts where the characters talk about how the city thrives on child labor. This would have been around the same time in history as the orphan trains were beginning. I found it interesting (though heartbreaking) that at first the orphans were thought of primarily as laborers, and sent west because farm life would be a better life than city life for a child. The children were instructed to refer to their caretakers as employers rather than parents. It was certainly a different time then.
I found it heartwarming to read the stories of some of the orphans who grew up to become leaders and great men and women. Among them, two governors, a nun, and countless lawyers, doctors, and other professionals. Many of those children probably wouldn’t have survived to adulthood and certainly wouldn’t have been educated without the opportunity the orphan trains provided for a better life.
I liked that the book is broken down chapter by chapter into different stories. That made it easy to read in shorter sittings. It also gave the opportunity to explore some of the very different outcomes the children experienced in a deeply personal way.
Orphan Trains would make a great addition to a classroom history bookshelf or resource for research on this time period or the origins of the foster care system in America. The book contains a glossary of terms, extensive index, lists of sources and bibliography.
The story follows several white children from orphanages in the East who ride a train west and find homes with farming families there.
Profanity/Crude Language Content
The Children’s Aid Society was founded by a minister named Charles Loring Brace. Orphan Trains relates the story of a nun who believed she’d been called by God to minister to children and opened an orphanage to care for abandoned infants and children. One orphan grew up to become a nun herself.
Some organizations attempted to match children born into Catholic families with new Catholic families and Protestant children with Protestant families.
Some of the families were unkind to the orphans placed with them. If the child was able to communicate to an agent about his or her unhappiness, she could be removed and placed with a different family. No graphic details given of abuse or neglect.
One child was placed in a home in which the mother abused opium and the father was an alcoholic.