The Orphan Train
By Andrea Warren
As an adult, Winefred Lorraine Williams learned that she was placed in a New York City orphanage soon after her birth in 1922 because her unmarried mother feared the wrath of her prominent family if they discovered that she had a baby.
Williams still remembers the stern caretakers at the orphanage, her thin clothes and constant hunger. Then a train ride changed her life.
In 1926, Williams and 13 other orphans were scrubbed, dressed in new clothes and put aboard a westbound train at Grand Central Station. The children were not told where they were going or why. They had no idea that they were on an ''orphan train'' or that they had become participants in the largest children’s migration in history.
Between 1854 and 1929, an estimated 200,000 American children—some orphaned, others abandoned, all in need of families—traveled west by rail in search of new homes in a novel ''placing out'' movement.
When Williams’ train reached Kirksville, Mo., the children were taken to a crowded local church and told to sit in chairs on the stage. An old man with a white beard approached the small, fair-haired Williams and pointed a bony finger at her. ''I’ll take that one!'' he boomed. ''My wife is sick, and I need someone to wash the dishes.''
Terrified, Williams refused to go with him. A music professor and his wife saw what happened and began talking gently to her. Would she like to be their little girl? Williams consented, and in that moment, she acquired loving parents.
The intent of the program was not adoption as it’s now known but foster care. Families acted from various motives, and not all children who rode orphan trains found happy homes. Some suffered abuse, were treated like hired help or were never fully accepted. Officials knew that placing out was imperfect and did what they could to screen inappropriate families. Despite problems, the system provided the best chance for many children.
The Orphan Explosion
The first U.S. orphanage reportedly was established in 1729 after Indians massacred settlers near Natchez, Miss. But institutional solutions were uncommon before the early 19th century, and relatives or neighbors usually raised children who had lost parents. Arrangements were informal and rarely involved courts.
About 1830, however, the problem of homeless children mushroomed in large Eastern cities, particulary New York, that were ports of entry for immigrants.
In 1850, when New York City’s population was 500,000, an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 homeless children lived in the streets or were warehoused in more than two dozen orphanages. Many were sons and daughters of down-on-their-luck immigrants. (If that ratio persisted today, New York alone would have at least 150,000 orphans, about the population of Arlington County.)
Some children were orphaned when their parents died in epidemics of typhoid, yellow fever or the flu. Others were abandoned or orphaned by parents victimized by grinding poverty of the slums, relentless diseases or drug and alcohol addiction.
Underlying everything was the staggering volume of 19th-century immigration. In 1820, the U.S. population was about 9.6 million. Within four decades, 5 million European immigrants would arrive, nearly all from Ireland, England and Germany. By 1900, 16 million Irish had come to America, and the population was 76.1 million.
During those years, orphanages were few in number, often grossly overcrowded. Children typically received minimal food, education and attention. Many an American child would have recognized themselves in grim poorhouse portraits drawn by author Charles Dickens. By age 14, youngsters were expected to leave and to make their own way in life.
In 1853, a reformer named Charles Loring Brace (1826-1890) founded the Children’s Aid Society to help destitute children, who he believed would fare better in families than on the streets or institutions.
As Brace’s son later wrote of the program’s rationale, ''There are few more pitiful specimens of humanity than the youth who has spent his childhood in an institution and who is at last forced out into a world of which he knows nothing by actual experience, unfitted for usefulness and doomed to failure.''
Brace came from a well-to-do New England family and traveled in Europe after graduating from Yale University. There he became acquainted with the concept of ''placing out,'' observing small groups of homeless children, who had been taken by charitable groups to areas where they had the best chance of finding families.
Brace decided to try the concept in New York. He reasoned that ''out west,'' including what we now call the Midwest, offered a healthier environment and presumably good-hearted families. Fliers would be posted in towns announcing that a train was coming.
Soon thousands of children were riding the rails to new homes. Once selected, each was dressed in new clothing, given a Bible and placed in the care of Children’s Aid Society agents who accompanied them west.
Most children thought that the train ride, which could last from days to weeks, was an exciting adventure. Few understood what was happening. Once they did, their reactions ranged from delight at finding a new family to anger and resentment at being ''placed out'' when they had relatives ''back home.''
Some children were assigned to specific families in advance. Most were placed en route after being displayed at train stops. Local committees would approve applications of families wanting children, and society agents would follow up with yearly visits, removing children from unfit homes.
Brace raised money for the program through his writings and speeches. Wealthy people occasionally sponsored trainloads of children. Railroads gave discount fares to the children and the agents who cared for them.
Because the majority of placements worked out well, the numbers of children riding the trains grew over time. An average of 3,000 children rode the trains each year from 1855 to 1875.
Most children on the trains were white. The largest number of trains went to the Midwest, much of which had been settled by immigrants from Western Europe. Society officials knew that children with the best chance of a new home were those with backgrounds similar to those of prospective foster families.
Language could be a consideration. An attempt was made to place non-English speakers with people who spoke their language. Bill Landkamer, 78, spoke only German when he rode an orphan train several times as a preschooler in the 1920s before finally being accepted by a German family in Nebraska.
Babies were easiest to place, but finding homes for children older than 14 was always difficult because of concern that they were too set in their ways or might have bad habits. Children who were physically or mentally disabled or sickly were difficult to house.
So an 1893 ad in the Tecumseh, Neb., newspaper announcing that an orphan train was coming no doubt drew much interest from families. It read in part:
All children received under the care of this Association are of SPECIAL PROMISE in intelligence and health, and are in age from one month to twelve years, and are sent FREE to those receiving them, on ninety days trial, UNLESS a special contract is otherwise made.When a group of three to 300 infants to teenagers arrived in a community, everyone turned out for the ''viewing.'' Many riders recall with horror how prospective parents examined and questioned them.
Lee Nailling, 81, of Atlanta, Tex., remembers a large farmer sticking his hand into Nailling’s mouth to see if his teeth were sound and says, ''It was all I could do to resist the urge to bite him.'' Like many children who traveled west with siblings, Nailling and his two brothers each went to different homes. Happily, the brothers could stay in touch while growing up.
Nailling’s new parents adopted him. Some riders remained foster children but took their new families’ names and were treated as full members of the family.
Adoption wasn’t a widespread practice for U.S. orphans until after 1900 and passage of various child-protection laws and a gradual clarification of adoption policy and procedures. Kansas, for example, had no adoption law until 1864, and Illinois codified the practice in 1867. Most states did not begin regulating placing out until the 1880s. Such informal changes of identity, however, declined as birth certificates or other legal documents became increasingly necessary for marriage, passport applications and other purposes.
Press accounts convey the spectacle, and sometimes auction-like atmosphere, attending arrival of a new group of children. ''Some ordered boys, others girls, some preferred light babies, others dark, and the orders were filled out properly and every new parent was delighted,'' reported The Daily Independent of Grand Island, Neb., in May 1912. ''They were very healthy tots and as pretty as anyone ever laid eyes on.''
Not all children were spoken for before they arrived, sometimes prompting stiff competition. The Hebron (Neb.) Journal noted in January 1890 that ''the greatest contest was for the possession of a sweet-faced, modest girl of 14. There were as many as a dozen wanted her.‚.‚.‚. ''
Selection criteria varied. In October 1889, the Burlington (Iowa) Gazette quoted one woman as saying, ''I want that boy because he has his hair combed.‚.‚.‚. I’m sure he is a good little boy, and don’t appear half so rough as the rest.'' She filled out the requisite paperwork and took the boy.
After children survived the viewing and found a new family, some faced other obstacles, ranging from prejudice of classmates because they were ''train children'' to feeling like outsiders in their families all their lives.
Toni Weiler (1911-1966) didn’t learn until she was older that she had ridden an orphan train to Nebraska as a toddler. By then, she already knew that her relationship with her parents was ''different,'' as she put it.
''We just never bonded,'' she explained years ago. ''We weren’t alike. My husband and I had eight children because I wanted a family more than anything in the world. I know I was trying to fill a void in my life. I always felt sad and lonely when I was a child.''
But Winefred Lorraine Williams, who lives today in Temple Hills, says she ''couldn’t have been a more wanted or adored child. If I go to heaven, my eyes will search only for my adoptive parents. They gave me life.''
Because of the success enjoyed by the Children’s Aid Society, other groups tried placing out. The Foundling Hospital of New York City sent infants and toddlers to prearranged Roman Catholic homes from 1875 to 1914. Although all of the children were spoken for, arrival of a ''baby train'' always drew huge crowds to watch the children being placed in the arms of their new parents. One father, holding his new son, told a Nebraska newspaper that it ''beats the stork all hollow. We asked for a boy of 18 months with brown hair and blue eyes, and the bill was filled to the last specification. The young rascal even has my name tacked on to him.''
The orphan trains finally stopped in 1930 for several reasons, including a decreased need for farm labor in the Midwest and increased efforts by social service agencies to keep struggling families together. The rise of the welfare system made a major difference, helping with financial support for children, who, in an earlier age, might have taken to the streets.
New programs helped immigrants to find jobs and housing when they arrived in America. New laws limited hours children could work, and others made it difficult or impossible for trainloads of orphans to move from one state to another. Individual and small-group foster homes replaced orphanages.
Today, the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America (OTHSA), headquartered in Springdale,Ark., helps to spread word about this little-known event in American history. About 500 riders are thought to be alive, and many have been reunited with lost siblings or other family members. The society is searching for new information on riders and preserving the stories.
One rider, Art Smith, who went to an Iowa farm, always suspected that his birth mother in New York had not wanted to give him up. At 71, he wrote the Children’s Aid Society asking what information was available. Back came a letter explaing that he had been left in Gimbel’s department store on Jan. 12, 1918, by a women thought to be his mother.
''We think their history is very important,'' says executive director Mary Ellen Johnson, who founded OTHSA in 1987. ''Most riders knew little or nothing of their pasts because of lack of information or because their adoption records were sealed. Some were adopted, and some were always foster children. Some found good homes, and some didn’t.
''What they all have in common is that having ridden an orphan train sets them apart in a way the rest of us can’t understand. They are like family to each other. When two riders meet each other, in a single moment they are bonded for life.''
Andrea Warren of Prairie Village, Kan. is author of Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), winner of the Horn Book Award for nonfiction.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company