READ THE FIRST CHAPTER
Actual Facts About The Orphan Trains
What could have brought about the shocking yet true concept of gathering up poor, desperate, helpless children, placing them on trains and shipping them out west to be claimed by perfect strangers? It’s hard for those of us warm and well fed sitting in our comfortable homes to understand the rationale or the need and yet for more than seventy-five years it was a viable solution for over 200,000 infants, children, and teenagers.[ii]
Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the United States struggled from extraordinary pressures. There was the astronominical healing process as the nation worked to recover from the Civil War where over 700,000 lives were lost (a number still not matched today). Immigration had exploded as an estimated 30 million Europeans would travel to the United States by 1914. And an incredible industrial revolution was occurring that included electricity, telephone, transcontinental train travel, automobile travel, and flight. The delicate balance of life and death, prosperity and poverty, and hope and despair leaned toward the darkness for many during this time and prompted Frederlick Law Olmstead to observe, “There’s a great work wants doing in this our generation.”[iii]
In 1849, New York’s first police chief reported that 3,000 children – or close to one percent of the city’s total population – lived on the streets and had no place to sleep but in alleys and abandoned buildings or under stairways.[iv] Charles Loring Brace was an idealogical minister who walked through the teeming city streets of New York and saw a need he believed he could address. During his time and even today he had his detractors as well as his supporters. Critics pointed out his ideaological belief that the west was an endless expanse of wealth and plenty where nightly dinner tables groaned under unimaginable bounty. Spiritual leaders were horrified by his lack of concern when matching diverse religious backgrounds between children in need and families in want. This prompted Catholic Charities to set up their own orphan train system which included scrupulous religious vetting for potential adoptive families. Regardless of these criticisms, my predominant opinion as I read Charles Loring Brace’s story was, “At least he did something.”
In March, 1853, he extablished an organization known as the Children’s Aid Society which still exists today (http://www.childrensaidsociety.org/). Initially, Brace wanted to offer education, religious guidance, jobs and good homes to children in need. He established the nation’s first runaway shelter and the Newsboy’s Lodging House where vagrant boys could receive an inexpensive room, board and a basic education. Brace, strapped for cash, soon was unable to meet the overwhelming demands of children needing assistance. His concept, to ship children west to the countryside and allow families to choose a child to bring home and care for, came out of his desire to address this dilemma. The first $50 donation towards this effort was given by Mrs. John Astor in 1853.[v]
The term “orphan train” is a misnomer. While children living in the nineteenth century did have a twenty to thirty percent chance of becoming an orphan before the age of fifteen, the majority of children on both the “orphan” trains and in orphanages had at least one living parent. Orphanages were often used as places to house children when a family was in crisis. It was not unusal for children to spend a number of years as a resident, to be visited occasionally by family, and eventually be reclaimed when family circumstances improved.
Brace’s premise for Placing Out children (as it was accurately called) was simple: cities were overflowing with destitute and orphaned children and rural America, the cradle of wholesome values, was always in need of laborers. As the railroad expanded its tracks – going from 9,021 miles of track in 1850 to 192,556 miles by 1900[vi], so too did Brace’s opportunities eventually allowing the Children’s Aid Society to place out children to all of the continuguous forty-eight states except Arizona.[vii]
But “anyone who accepted adoption as the ideal goal of the orphan trains would have been deeply disappointed by their actual results, and anyone who believed that the typical orphan train rider ended up adopted would have felt equally betrayed, because the truth is that only a minority of orphan train riders ever experienced anything like what we would call adoption today.”[viii]
An wonderful book I came across, We Are A Part Of History: The Story Of The Orphan Trains, provided an excellent narrative resource of actual orphan train riders. Many stories were heartbreaking, only some were uplifting. I have my characters, Liliana and Jossue, grumble over the truth of their circumstances. Yet, I have Miss Tice ask the important question that I myself wondered, “Isn’t the hope of a new life better than no hope at all?”
I was intrigued with the concept of the orphan trains from the moment I learned of them. At the time, I was teaching a fifth grade reading class in New Jersey - with two students named Liliana and Jossue (pronounced Hoe-Sway, just for the record!). The story has been growing in my head for over six years (while I wrote seven other stories). I bought books on the subject and began to think about things like New York City tenemants, child labor, Texas, the Spanish language, influenza, letters, treasure … You get the picture.
I like to write stories about real life. And for me, real life always includes spiritual hope and godly truths. While I tried to present as accurately as possible the bleak existence and constant hardships faced by my three fictional Alvaro children, I was just as determined to show the transforming power of God in anyone’s life.
I believe in this truth whole heartedly.
I have seen it.
I have lived it myself.
It is my earnest hope that you, too, will understand this truth as well!
[i] Ephesians 3:20, New Living Translation Bible, Tyndale House Publishers
[ii] The Orphan Trains, By Marilyn Irvin Holt, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1992, ISBN 0-8032-2360-9
[iii] Orphan Trains, By Stephen O’Connor, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2001, ISBN: 0-226-61667-3.
[iv] Orphan Trains, By Stephen O’Connor, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2001, ISBN: 0-226-61667-3.
[vi] The Orphan Trains, By Marilyn Irvin Holt, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1992, ISBN 0-8032-2360-9
[vii] Orphan Trains, By Stephen O’Connor, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2001, ISBN: 0-226-61667-3.
[viii] Orphan Trains, By Stephen O’Connor, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2001, ISBN: 0-226-61667-3.