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The Orphan Train

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The Orphan Train was a social experiment that transported children from crowded coastal cities of the United States to the country’s Midwest for adoption. The orphan trains ran between 1854 and 1929, relocating an estimated 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. At the time the orphan train movement began, it was estimated that 30,000 vagrant children were living on the streets of New York City.

Two charity institutions, The Children’s Aid Society (established by Charles Loring Brace) and The New York Foundling Hospital, determined to help these children. The two institutions developed a program that placed homeless city children into homes throughout the country. The children were transported to their new homes on trains which were eventually labeled “orphan trains.” This period of mass relocation of children in the United States is widely recognized as the beginning of documented foster care in America.

Brace believed that institutional care stunted and destroyed children. In his view, only work, education and a strong family life could help them develop into self-reliant citizens. Brace knew that American pioneers could use help settling the American West, so he arranged to send the orphaned children to pioneer families. “In every American community, especially in a western one, there are many spare places at the table of life,” Brace wrote. “They have enough for themselves and the stranger too.”

The children were encouraged to break completely with their past. They would typically arrive in a town where local community leaders had assembled interested townspeople. The townspeople would inspect the children and after brief interviews with the ones they wanted, take them home. After a trial period, some children became indentured servants to their host families, while most were adopted, formally or informally, as family members.

Between 1854 and 1929, more than 200,000 children rode the “Orphan Train” to new lives. The Orphan Train Heritage Society maintains an archive of riders’ stories. The National Orphan Train Museum in Concordia, Kansas maintains records and also houses a research facility.

Two famous former orphan train riders are Governor John Green Brady of Alaska, and Governor Andrew Burke of North Dakota.

Lyrics to the song, “Orphans of God”:

Who here among us has not been broken
Who here among us is without guilt or pain
So oft’ abandoned by our transgressions
If such a thing as grace exists
Then grace was made for lives like this

There are no strangers
There are no outcasts
There are no orphans of God
So many fallen, but hallelujah
There are no orphans of God

Come ye unwanted and find affection
Come all ye weary, come and lay down your head
Come ye unworthy, you are my brother
If such a thing as grace exists
Then grace was made for lives like this

O blessed Father, look down upon us
We are Your children, we need Your love
We run before Your throne of mercy
And seek Your face to rise above

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