The Orphan Train Riders were a part of the Orphan Train Movement, which was a welfare program to transport them away from the crowded cities in the Eastern United States. The children were from about the age of six to eighteen and all shared a common dispirited view of existence. Their lives were spent on the streets and slums of cities like New York with an insignificant hope of a prosperous future. The Orphan Train Riders comprised of over 30,000 children who were either orphaned or homeless.
Fortuitously, Charles Loring Brace, who founded the Children’s Aid Society, had a completely positive perception on how to change the future of these children. The basis of his ideas was that when the children were removed from all the sufferings, poverty, and immorality, they would have a chance to escape a lifetime of troubles if they were taken to farm families that were morally upright. His proposition was for these children to be sent to the west by train and continue their lives there while still farming.
The idea was to place these Orphan Train Riders in homes without anything required of them, except that they provide extra help in farms. There was to be no indenturing, and in fact, those who were older, the Children Aid’s Society would place them, and they would get wages for their labor. The Orphan Train Movement started in 1853 and lasted to early 1900. The program saw the placing of over 120,000 children.
The Orphan Trains made stops in more than 45 states across the US, Mexico, and Canada. In the starting years, Indiana had the most children placed there. Several agencies in New York, apart from the Children Aid’s Society, such as Children’s Village, New York Foundling Hospital and Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York placed children to foster homes.
Some of the Orphan Train Riders experienced struggles conforming to their new residences, while others continued to live simple and ordinary lives caring for their families and working to realize the American dream. Although there was no proper record keeping, some of those placed in the West were very successful with some becoming lawyers, ministers, teachers, journalists, physicians, governors and district attorneys among others.
The Orphan Train Movement together with the Children’s Aid initiatives pioneered various child welfare reforms such as vocational training, healthcare, and nutrition provision, adoption and child labor laws among many others. Most of the last generation of the Orphan Train Riders still lives in various towns across the country. People can access most of the significant historical records through The Childrens Aids Society.