Orphan Train Rider

Orphan Train Rider
Oliver Nordmark - Age 15 - Esbon KS

Saturday, March 6, 2010


In September of 1854, the first ORPHAN TRAIN departed New York City for the state of Michigan with 46 boys ranging in age from 7 to 15. In the following 75 years, over 250,000 children would be transported from east coast cities to communities in every one of the 48 contiguous states. Most, however, were concentrated in the Midwest. While many of the children were indeed orphans, there were just as many half orphans, as well as children who were abandoned by living parents who could not care for them. Taken from orphanages as well as off the streets of the cities, these children would travel together either in boxcars or in passenger cars with their passage donated by the railroad companies or purchased at a reduced rate by the sending agency. The above picture is a Boys Cottage at the Children's Village - an orphanage in Dobbs Ferry on Long Island where my grandfather Oliver Nordmark spent one year before being chosen to ride the train to Bern, Kansas.

With some variability, the orphan trains worked basically like this: Notices would be sent to newspapers in farm communities along the train's route announcing the date and time that a "company of orphan children, under the auspices of The Children's Aid Society" would be arriving in town. Farmers and merchants were encouraged to come and see the children, hear the address to be given by the Escort explaining where the children were from and that they were in search of homes, and then hopefully leave with a new child in tow. Once the train arrived in town, the children were taken to whatever large gathering place was available in town. Often times this was an Opera House where vaudeville performances were frequently staged. If not an Opera House, perhaps a town hall or large church. The children would be lined up on chairs on the stage of the Opera House and then the townspeople would come in, hear the address, then walk along the line of children, inspecting them, and perhaps choosing one to take home. People taking children were expected to treat them as their own children, properly clothe and feed them, send them to school and sunday school, and have them help out on the farm and around the house.
Once placed in a new home, the plan was for a representative of the placing agency to go and check on each child at least once a year to make sure that everything was okay and that both the child and the family were happy with the placement. In truth, this did not always happen. Imagine a train full of 30 children stopping in one small town and those children chosen by farmers who had come in to town that day. Farmers may have traveled as much as 30-40 miles to be there for the train's arrival. With children disbursed at a 40 mile radius around the town, it was not always possible for the agent to get to every child. So, what might happen is that the agent might ask about a particular child while in town and get a good report from a teacher or merchant who knew the family. Or, as has been reported by riders themselves, the agent would always come when the child was at school and the foster parent would vouch for the placement when in fact, the child was terribly unhappy or even abused. The system was not without flaws, that's for sure.
Any child not chosen during the stop would board the train and travel to the next town on the route to try again. If any children remained when the train reached the end of the line, they would travel back to NYC to try again another day on another route. The more the railroad system was built up, the further west, south and north the children traveled.
CHECK BACK SOON to see how the Sisters of Charity operated their "BABY TRAINS"!


Yaya' s Changing World said...

That must have been very frightening for every single one of those children, as well as for many of the foster parents. I think that those parents with the kindest hearts were probably most frightened because they would have been the ones, in my opinion, who would have had the child's welfare as the top priority.

My heart goes out to all of the children. But I feel most sad about those foster parents who mistreated the children. I believe their day will come when they will wish they had been kinder; much, much kinder.

Yaya's Changing World

Joan said...

I had never heard about this bit of history --- thanks for telling about this era and happenings.

Donna said...

That's what I'm working so hard to change! You are one more person now who knows :) Tell one more....

Anonymous said...

I love history and it looks like you have some great history in you family. Loved the train story. Need to read more.
Looking forward to read about the Baby Trains.
It's just unbelieveable what some children have had to go through.

Anonymous said...

do you know anything else about Nellie and nettie. I am starting to work on my history day for school. I choose the orphan trains for my project. Me and my partner would like to know more about Nellie and nettie.