Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Orphan Trains

One of my goals in my Renaissance Mind self-challenge was to watch 2 documentaries from Netflix a month. Last month, I watched 3-- two were interesting, the third was not so great.

The other night, I watched this month's first documentary, and it was fascinating! I'd never heard of this particular segment of our American history, and The Orphan Trains was so fascinating that I made Fee watch it with me the second time.

During the 1850's, a young minister named Charles Loring Brace was stunned and saddened by the abandoned street children in New York. I've read about these abandoned children many times, but was totally unaware of Brace's solution to the problem. He formed the Children's Aid Society and began shipping the children to farming communities in the West, hoping that loving Christian families could take the children in and save them from the horrible conditions they faced alone on the streets of New York.

Everything was well-documented. Names of children, where they went, entries in Brace's journals, letters from the children and their new families, etc. From the 1850's until 1929, the Orphan Trains carried over 150,000 children from New York to points west.

Some of these situations didn't work out so well; despite the efforts of the Children's Aid Society, many potential families were no better vetted than foster families are today and the check ups on situations were difficult and spotty because there were so many placements. Some families undoubtedly saved the lives of many children; other situations must have been terrible disasters. Photographs of the children taken by Brace's photographer and by the families that took the children in tell a remarkable story on their own, but the interviews with many elderly individuals who rode the trains to new homes from the early part of the 2oth century are both engrossing and touching.

Brace worked hard to save the children who wandered bare foot and slept in door ways, but he grappled with the dilemma of what to do to help:

"When a child of the streets stands before you in rags, with a tear-stained face, you cannot easily forget him. And yet, you are perplexed what to do. The human soul is difficult to interfere with. You hesitate how far you should go."

The Orphan Trains is a remarkable story and a remarkable documentary. I highly recomment it.

More information can be found here (and these are just a few sites):

Charles Loring Brace

Orphan Trains
The Adoption History Project
The Children's Aid Society
National Orphan Train Complex

Cross-posted at my book blog.


  1. What an interesting story! I've added the documentary to my Netflix queue.

  2. I heard about orphan trains when I was teaching a few years ago. Didn't know about the documentary though. Thanks.

  3. rainylakechick - It is really is a fascinating story!

    Kay - The documentary is great. If I were teaching any kind of American history, I would certainly include it. Of course, I taught Brit. Lit. and was completely unaware of the trains.

  4. Thanks for the review. I'm off to update Netflix...

  5. Kim - A great way to spend an evening. Fee and I had such a good discussion afterwards. :) Which is why I wanted him to see it, too, because I wanted to share and talk about it!

  6. Oh, JenClair! You must not know Finn...Pieces From My Scrapbag and her other "Riding the Orpan Train' blog. Finn has spent her life fascinated by this story. I sent her the song a long time ago, and found out they are not the same story..the song is separate from the orphans. But the stories are both fascinating. We make Orphan Train quilts...which are odds and ends of leftovers put tother and donate them on our own. I have Finn's links on my sidebar blog rotation or you can do a word search...but you really should be one of us, write her, visit her blog. We passed the book'They Named Me Marjorie' about an Orphan Train child last can find it on a search on my blog, for sure.
    With Heart and Hands Michele

  7. Michele - No, I had no idea about Finn and her "Riding the Orphan Train" blog! Thanks for letting me know.

    I'd never heard about this before and was absolutely enthralled. The documentary was excellent, and then I kept finding stuff on line. Thanks again for letting me know about Finn!


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