Folksongster Utah Phillips wrote a song called "Orphan Train," which I first heard at the American Banjo Camp 2004. I'd forgotten about it until Celestial Monochord reader Marjorie G. suggested I write about Orphan Trains. Today's entry is based almost exclusively on the results of her research for the Monochord.
Once I had a darling mother, though I can't recall her name
I had a baby brother who I'll never see again
For the Children's Home is sending us out on the Orphan Train
To try to find someone to take us in
Take us in, we have rode the Orphan Train
Take us in, we need a home, we need a name
Take us in, oh won't you be our kin?
We are looking for someone to take us in
The UK had long engaged in various forced migrations of orphaned, delinquent, or just plain poor children. Since at least Shakespeare's time, kids were kidnapped from the streets of London and shipped off to "people the colonies" of the Americas and Australia. In the form of the "farm school movement," the practice continued in the UK through WWII.
I have stolen from the poorbox, I've begged the city streets
I've swabbed the bars and poolrooms for a little bite to eat
In my daddy's old green jacket and these rags upon my feet
I've been looking for someone to take me in
The Children's Home they gathered us, me and all the rest
They taught us to sit quietly until the food was blessed
Then they put us on the Orphan Train and sent us way out West
To try to find someone to take us in.
In 1854, the newly-formed Children's Aid Society started running orphan trains out of New York and Boston, carrying children from what Society founder Charles Loring Brace called "the dangerous classes." Conditions in these cities were indeed horrifying for homeless and orphaned children who had often immigrated from their native lands to escape similar conditions. Prominent businessmen funded Brace's orphan train project in an effort to head off the social turmoil they feared would result from such conditions.
The Catholic New York Foundling Hospital joined in, sending thousands of its "foundlings" west. Believing a strict policy of anonymity would help to save the most children, the hospital set up a kind of turntable near the hospital entrance. An "unwed mother," presumably, would place her infant on the table, ring a bell, and the baby would disappear into the hospital without mother and nun ever having to see each other.
Nobody knows how many orphans were shipped west. The 200,000 often quoted by the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America is considered very conservative. In 1910, the Foundling Hospital reported that it alone had sent 2700 children just to Wisconsin — and the Orphan Trains went everwhere there were railroad tracks.
The farmers and their families they came from miles around
We lined up on the platform of the station in each town
And one by one we parted like some living lost-and-found
And one by one we all were taken in
Now there's many a fine doctor or a teacher in your school
There's many a good preacher who can teach the Golden Rule
Who started out an orphan sleeping in the freezing rain
Whose life began out on the Orphan Train.
In the accounts given by the riders of the Orphan Trains, they universally thought they were sent out on the only Orphan Train. Only decades later did they realize there were at least hundreds of such trains.
The riders also consistently report that the scene at the train stops was terribly anxiety-producing. The Children's Aid stops were highly publicized in advance to maximize the number of adopters, and the children were displayed, studied, groped and then usually rejected. But they feared being still on the train at the end of the line. Girls older than toddlers were the last to be picked.
Unquestionably, some riders didn't do well, suffering beatings, neglect, and all manner of abuse while also being used on farms as chattel slaves. But the president of the Orphan Train Heritage Society objects that most writing about the riders emphasize horror stories, while it seems most riders did fairly well. Apparently, Utah Phillips' hopeful song isn't too unrepresentative. A lot of ordinary and extraordinary people in twentieth-century American towns started out riding the Orphan Trains.
Thanks, Marjorie, for your help on this. Thanks also for taking in a lot of strays over the years, on top of raising the rest of us yahoos.
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