Children’s Aid Society

CCSS

R.1, R.2, R.3, R.4, R.7, W.3, SL.1, SL.6, L.4, L.6


The Orphan Train

The story of a boy searching for a new home on a     terrifying journey across the country. 

    It was March 1926. Eight-year-old Lee was on a train. His two younger brothers—Gerald and Leo—were with him. So were 47 other children. All of these children were orphaned or abandoned. A matron watched over them as the train headed west across the United States. 

    Lee’s mother was dead. His father could not care for his kids on his own. For two years, Lee had lived in an orphanage in New York. 

    Now, Lee and his brothers were being sent west to find new families. “This is an opportunity for you,” the matron told Lee. “This is an orphan train, and you’re very lucky to be on it.”

    Lee didn’t think so. He wanted to go back home. At the train station, Lee’s father had given him a pink envelope. It had his father’s address on it. He told Lee to write to him. 

    As the train chugged and swayed, Lee dreamed of the day he’d see his dad again. 

    He was sure his father wanted his sons back.

    It was March 1926.  Lee was 8 years old. He was on a train. His younger brothers, Gerald and Leo, were with him. So were 47 other kids. All were orphaned or abandoned. A matron watched over them as the train moved west across the United States.

    Lee’s mother was dead. His father had lost his job and could not care for his kids. For two years, Lee had lived in an orphanage in New York.

    Now, Lee and his brothers were being sent west to find new families. “This is an opportunity for you,” the matron told Lee. “This is an orphan train, and you’re very lucky to be on it.”

    Lee didn’t think so. He wanted to go home. At the train station, his dad had given him a pink envelope. It had his father’s address on it. He told Lee to write to him. Lee dreamed of the day he’d see his dad again.

    It was March 1926, and 8-year-old Lee was riding a train. His two younger brothers, Gerald and Leo, were with him. So were 47 other children, all of them orphaned or abandoned. A matron supervised the children as the train traveled westward across the United States.

    Lee’s mother was dead, and his father had lost his job and was unable to support his kids. For two years, Lee had lived in an orphanage in New York.

    Now, Lee and his brothers were being sent west to find new families. “This is an opportunity for you,” the matron told Lee. “This is an orphan train, and you’re very lucky to be on it.”

    Lee didn’t feel lucky; he wanted to go back home. At the train station, Lee’s father had given him a pink envelope. It had his father’s address on it. He told Lee to write to him.

    As the train chugged and swayed, Lee dreamed of the day he’d be reunited with his father.

    He was certain that his father wanted his sons back.

Children on the Streets 

    The orphan-train program began in 1854. Back then, thousands of kids like Lee lived in orphanages in big cities. 

    Life in these cities was hard for the poor. When parents couldn’t find work—or died—kids often ended up alone. Some lived in orphanages. Others lived on the streets, begging and stealing to survive.

    Many people considered these children dangerous pests. But some people wanted to help them. A man named Charles Loring Brace started a group called the Children’s Aid Society. It provided food, shelter, and schooling to New York City’s abandoned kids.

    Very quickly, Brace came to believe that living in the city was unhealthy for children. He had heard of a program in Europe that sent poor kids to the countryside to find new homes. He thought a similar idea could work in the U.S.

    In 1854, Brace tested his plan with 46 children ages 10 to 12. By the end of the trip, every child had a new family. Brace’s plan was a success. Soon, thousands of kids were riding the orphan trains every year.

    The orphan-train program began in 1854. Back then, thousands of kids like Lee lived in orphanages in big cities.

    Life in these cities was hard for the poor. When parents couldn’t find work—or died—kids were often left alone. Some lived in orphanages. Others lived on the streets, begging and stealing to survive.

    Many people saw these kids as pests. But others wanted to help them. A man named Charles Loring Brace started a group called the Children’s Aid Society. It gave food, shelter, and schooling to abandoned kids.

    Brace had heard of a program in Europe that sent poor kids to the countryside to find new homes. He thought this could work in the U.S.

    In 1854, Brace tested his plan with 46 kids ages 10 to 12. By the end of the trip, every kid had a new home. Soon, thousands of kids were riding orphan trains every year.

    The orphan-train program began in 1854. Back then, thousands of kids like Lee lived in orphanages in big cities.

    Life in these cities was difficult for the poor. When parents couldn’t find employment—or died—kids often ended up alone. Some lived in orphanages. Others lived on the streets, begging and stealing to survive.

    Many people regarded these children as dangerous pests, but some people wanted to help them. A man named Charles Loring Brace started an organization called the Children’s Aid Society, which provided food, shelter, and education to New York City’s abandoned kids.

    Brace quickly became convinced that living in the city was unhealthy for children. He had heard of a program in Europe that sent impoverished children to the countryside to find new homes, and he thought a similar program could work in America.

    In 1854, Brace tested his idea with 46 children ages 10 to 12. By the end of the journey, every child had a new family. Soon, thousands of kids were riding orphan trains every year.

Bettmann/Getty Images (homeless kids sleeping); Library of Congress (orphanage)

A Hard Life
Life in New York City was difficult for the poor. Thousands of orphaned children ended up living on the streets. (Left)

 

Forgotten Children  
Orphanages like this one were filled with abandoned kids. There wasn’t much food or love to go around. (Right)

Pink Envelope 

    Before boarding the orphan train, kids were given a bath and fancy new clothes. Matrons warned them to keep those clothes tidy. That wasn’t easy to do on a train journey—especially a trip that could last a week or more. 

    Still, Lee tried his best. That first night on the train, he took off his suit jacket and laid it out neatly. He made sure the pink envelope with his father’s address was tucked safely in the pocket.

    In the morning, the envelope was gone. Lee looked everywhere. When he asked the matron for help, she told him to get back in his seat.

    “Where you’re going, you won’t be needing that envelope,” she said. 

    Lee knew she had taken it—but he felt helpless. First his mother had died. Then he’d spent two sad years at an orphanage. Now he’d lost his only connection to his father. 

    At night, Lee lay there with tears rolling down his cheeks. “How have I lost so much?” he wondered.

    Before boarding the orphan train, kids were given a bath and fancy new clothes.

    Matrons warned them to keep those clothes tidy. That wasn’t easy to do on a train trip, especially one that could last a week.

    Still, Lee tried his best. That first night on the train, he took off his suit jacket and laid it out neatly. He made sure the pink envelope was tucked safely in the pocket.

    In the morning, the envelope was gone. Lee looked everywhere. When he asked the matron for help, she told him to sit down.

    “Where you’re going, you won’t be needing that envelope,” she said.

    Lee knew she had taken it. He felt helpless. First his mother had died. Now he’d lost his only link to his father.

    At night, Lee lay there with tears rolling down his cheeks. “How have I lost so much?” he wondered.

    Before boarding the orphan train, kids were given a bath and fancy new clothing.

    Matrons warned them to keep those clothes tidy. That could be challenging on a train journey—especially a trip that could last a week or longer.

    Still, Lee made an effort. That first night on the train, he removed his suit jacket and laid it out neatly. He made sure the pink envelope with his father’s address was tucked safely in the pocket.

    In the morning, the envelope had vanished. Lee looked everywhere. When he asked the matron for help, she ordered him to return to his seat.

    “Where you’re going, you won’t be needing that envelope,” the matron said.

    Lee knew she had taken the envelope—but he felt helpless. First his mother had died, and then he’d spent two miserable years at an orphanage. Now he’d lost his only connection to his father.

    At night, Lee lay there with tears rolling down his cheeks. “How have I lost so much?” he wondered.

Finding a Home 

    Before long, the children on the orphan train learned the routine. When the train stopped in a town, the matrons led them to a meeting place. Usually it was a church or hotel. 

    Interested families would line up to meet the children. They would talk to them and pick one to take home. The children who weren’t chosen got back on the train. They kept going from town to town until all of them were picked. 

    Many of these journeys ended happily. Needy children found loving homes. But some kids ended up in bad situations. Their new families wanted them only so they could work as servants or farmhands. 

    The Children’s Aid Society was supposed to make sure that every child was safe—but the group failed sometimes. Many kids were abused. Others ran away.

    Before long, the kids on the train learned the routine. When the train stopped in a town, the matrons led them to a meeting place. Usually it was a church or hotel.

    Families would meet the kids. They would pick one to take home. The kids who weren’t chosen got back on the train. They went from town to town until they were picked.

    Many of these journeys ended well. Needy kids found good homes. But some kids were not so lucky. Their new families wanted them only so they could work as servants.

    The Children’s Aid Society was supposed to make sure that every child was safe. But it failed sometimes. Many kids were abused. Some ran away.    

    Before long, the children on the orphan train grew accustomed to the routine. When the train stopped in a town, the matrons led them to a gathering place—usually a church or hotel.

    Interested families would line up to meet the children. They would talk to them and select one to take home. The children who weren’t chosen returned to the train and continued traveling from town to town until all of them were picked.

    Many of these journeys ended happily, with needy children finding loving homes. But some kids ended up in terrible situations: Their new families wanted them only so they could work as servants or farmhands.

    The Children’s Aid Society was supposed to make sure that every child was safe—but the organization failed sometimes. Many kids were abused, and some ran away.

Jim Mcmahon/mapman®

Where Did the Orphan Trains Go?  
Most of the orphan trains were sent west, where people were starting new lives on the frontier. Many of the children on the orphan trains ended up in the states in red. 

The Journey Ends

    After a week’s journey, the train stopped in Clarksville, Texas. There, one couple chose Gerald. Another chose Leo and Lee. 

    But Lee stayed with that family for only a few days. He didn’t last much longer with the next one. Finally, he went to live with Ben and Ollie Nailling. 

    That first day, Lee refused to speak to the Naillings. He still planned on running away to find his father. But the next morning, Lee woke up to the smell of biscuits, ham, bacon, and eggs. Lee had never seen so much food.

    After breakfast, the Naillings walked to town with Lee. They told neighbors that Lee was their “new son.” Soon, Lee stopped thinking about running away. He was starting to feel at home.

    After a week’s journey, the train stopped in Clarksville, Texas. There, one couple chose Gerald. Another chose Leo and Lee.

    But Lee stayed with that family for only a few days. He didn’t last much longer with the next one. Finally, he went to live with Ben and Ollie Nailling.

    That first day, Lee didn’t speak to the Naillings. He planned to run away and find his dad. But the next morning, he woke up to the smell of biscuits, ham, bacon, and eggs. 

    After breakfast, the Naillings walked to town with Lee. They told neighbors he was their “new son.” He began to feel at home.

    After a week’s journey, the train stopped in Clarksville, Texas. There, one couple chose Gerald and another chose Leo and Lee.

    Lee remained with that family for only a few days—and he didn’t last much longer with the next one. Finally, he went to live with Ben and Ollie Nailling.

    That first day, Lee refused to speak to the Naillings. He still intended to run away to find his father. But the next morning, Lee awoke to the tantalizing aromas of biscuits, ham, bacon, and eggs. Lee had never seen so much food.

    After breakfast, the Naillings walked to town with Lee, introducing him to neighbors as their “new son.” Soon, Lee began to feel at home and stopped thinking about running away.

Riding the Train

    The last of the orphan trains left New York in 1929. There’s no way to know for sure what became of the 200,000 kids who rode them over the years. Many went on to lead happy lives. Others suffered from cruel treatment.

    Lee never found his father, but he knew he was lucky. He was happy with the Naillings. His brothers lived nearby—and the Naillings made sure he saw them often. Lee later went to college and served in World War II. He married and raised a family. 

    “I’ve always felt that I had a guardian angel watching over me,” said Lee. He had gotten off the train in Texas as a bitter, unhappy boy—and ended up with a loving family.  

    “That was where I belonged,” he said. 

    The last of the orphan trains left New York in 1929. About 200,000 kids rode them over the years. Many went on to lead happy lives. Others suffered from cruel treatment.

    Lee never found his dad. But he knew he was lucky. He had a good home. His brothers lived nearby, and he saw them often. Lee later went to college and served in World War II. He married and raised a family.

    “I’ve always felt that I had a guardian angel watching over me,” said Lee. The orphan train had carried him to a loving family.  

    “That was where I belonged,” he said.

    The last of the orphan trains left New York in 1929. It’s impossible to know for sure what became of the 200,000 kids who rode them over the years. Many went on to lead happy lives, while others suffered from cruel treatment.

    Lee never located his father, but he knew he was fortunate. He was happy with the Naillings. His brothers lived nearby, and the Naillings made sure he saw them often. Lee later attended college, served in World War II, got married, and raised a family.

    “I’ve always felt that I had a guardian angel watching over me,” Lee stated. He had disembarked from the train in Texas as a bitter, unhappy boy—and ended up in a comfortable home with a loving family.  

    “That was where I belonged,” he said. 

Kansas Historical Society (train); Children’s Aid Society (Brace); Shutterstock.com (train tracks); Orphan Train Heritage Society of America (poster)

Looking For a New Family
The orphan train program was started in 1854 by Charles Loring Brace (left). Orphan trains like the one above stopped in towns throughout the country. In each town, families lined up to meet the “children without homes.”

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