A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from June 04, 2006
Orphan Train
The "orphan trains" operated from about 1850-1929, sponsored by the Children's Aid Society and other societies. The trains moved children from the slums of New York City to the country, mostly out West.

The program often did not involve "orphans." Many of the children on the trains came from poor, immigrant families and were separated forever from their birth families. The discontinued program is seen in an increasingly controversial light today.

The Orphan Train Movement

The children ranged in age from about six to 18 and shared a common grim existence. Homeless or neglected, they lived in New York City's streets and slums with little or no hope of a successful future. Their numbers were large - an estimated 30,000 children were homeless in New York City in the 1850s.

Charles Loring Brace, the founder of The Children's Aid Society, believed that there was a way to change the futures of these children. By removing youngsters from the poverty and debauchery of the city streets and placing them in morally upright farm families, he thought they would have a chance of escaping a lifetime of suffering. He proposed that these children be sent by train to live and work on farms out west. They would be placed in homes for free but they would serve as an extra pair of hands to help with chores around the farm. They wouldn't be indentured. In fact, older children placed by The Children's Aid Society were to be paid for their labors.

The Orphan Train Movement lasted from 1853 to the early 1900s and more than 120,000 children were placed. This ambitious, unusual and controversial social experiment is now recognized as the beginning of the foster care concept in the United States.

Orphan Trains stopped at more than 45 states across the country as well as Canada and Mexico. During the early years, Indiana received the largest number of children. There were numerous agencies nationwide that placed children on trains to go to foster homes. In New York, besides CAS, other agencies that placed children included Children's Village (then known as the New York Juvenile Asylum), what is now New York Foundling Hospital and the former Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York, which is now the Graham-Windham Home for Children.

Some of the children struggled in their newfound surrounding, while many others went on to lead simple, very normal lives, raising their families and working towards the American dream. Although records weren't always well kept, some of the children placed in the West went on to great successes. There were two governors, one congressman, one sheriff, two district attorneys, three county commissioners as well as numerous bankers, lawyers, physicians, journalists, ministers, teachers and businessmen.

The Orphan Train Movement and the success of other CAS initiatives led to a host of child welfare reforms including child labor laws, adoption and the establishment of foster care services, public education, the provision of health care and nutrition and vocational training.

The last generation of Orphan Train riders is still living in towns across the United States. They keep in touch with each other through the Orphan Train Heritage Society and through CAS. Based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the Orphan Train Society helps members establish and maintain family contacts, retrace their roots and preserve the history of the Orphan Train Movement.

Eighty years ago, Elliot Bobo was taken from his alcoholic father's home, given a small cardboard suitcase, and put on board an "orphan train" bound for Arkansas. Bobo never saw his father again. He was one of tens of thousands of neglected and orphaned children who over a 75-year period were uprooted from the city and sent by train to farming communities to start new lives with new families. Elliot Bobo's remarkable story is part of The Orphan Trains.

The story of this ambitious and finally controversial effort to rescue poor and homeless children begins in the 1850s, when thousands of children roamed the streets of New York in search of money, food and shelter -- prey to disease and crime. Many sold matches, rags, or newspapers to survive. For protection against street violence, they banded together and formed gangs. Police, faced with a growing problem, were known to arrest vagrant children--some as young as five -- locking them up with adult criminals.

In 1853, a young minister, Charles Loring Brace, became obsessed by the plight of these children, who because of their wanderings, were known as "street Arabs." A member of a prominent Connecticut family, Brace had come to New York to complete his seminary training. Horrified by the conditions he saw on the street, Brace was persuaded there was only one way to help these "children of unhappy fortune."

"The great duty," he wrote, "is to get utterly out of their surroundings and to send them away to kind Christian homes in the country."

In 1853, Brace founded the Children's Aid Society to arrange the trips, raise the money, and obtain the legal permissions needed for relocation. Between 1854 and 1929, more than 100,000 children were sent, via orphan trains, to new homes in rural America. Recognizing the need for labor in the expanding farm country, Brace believed that farmers would welcome homeless children, take them into their homes and treat them as their own. His program would turn out to be a forerunner of modern foster care.

17 May 1859, New York Times, "The Cure of Juvenile Crime," pg. 4:
It is a growing opinion that street-begging should not be tolerated, and that the whole tribe of small peddlers should be carefully watched by the police, lest they be only beggars in disguise, or even something worse. The Children's Aid Society has done a great work in thinning out of the City this class. Its working agents labor incessantly to induce whole squadrons of them to emigrate to the West. The economy of this disposition, so far as this City is concerned, is as obvious as its wisdom, -- the whole cost of their emigration, including all their preparation, averaging only some $12 to $15 each.

21 June 1859, New York Times, "Different Charities for Children" (letter by "CIVIS), pg. 2:
For example, the chief end and aim of the Children's Aid Society being the immediate transplanting of its children into the country among respectable and virtuous families, this Society should be extremely careful not to receive or transplant any but those who are in a fit moral and mental condition to be so placed. All those who are below this standard should be handed over by them to one of the other Societies for the needful training and discipline, as they have no accommodations of their own for that purpose. The transplanting of vicious children into the families of virtuous and respectable farmers at the West, (especially where they have children of their own,) to contaminate and ruin those they are thrown with is now complained of from that section, and must be remedied; and this remark applies to all our Societies in a great or less degree.

21 April 1860, Christian Inquirer, "Children's Aid Society" by John Earl Williams, pg. 1:
In the pamphlet this Society has recently published, "On Pauper and Vagrant Children," are contained about fifty letters selected from a much larger number received by the officers, written from twelve different States, and more than four times as many towns. They are from prominent gentlemen, clergymen, bankers, farmers, judges, and lawyers, mostly from the West, where the main body of the children have been placed. They speak, i nthe most satisfactory terms, of the general conduct of our children, and particularize many instances of rare merits. When compared with children sent from other institutions, the preponderance of testimony is in favor of those received from the Children's Aid Society. These letters, and those received from the boys themselves, from whom we are constantly receiving accounts of their progress and experience, establish the remarkable success of our work. Indeed, if it were not a success, it must long ago have shown itself a failure! For we have sent from New York several thousand persons, mostly children, to new homes in the West. Their reception was entirely voluntary on the part of those who took them, while their stay there has been equally voluntary on the part of the children. We say, therefore, it would have shown itself a failure, in the indignant refusal of the West to receive our children into their families, had they proved pests and scourges, instead of being, as we can prove they are, aids and useful members of the different communities into which they have gone.

Proof of the good influence on the West by our youthful emigrants is found in the increasing welcome with which the people there receive our agents and the children. One clergyman told Mr. TRACY, our principal agent, that the children had done the families and communities into which they had come more good than the people had done them! Indeed ,the evidence on this point now in our possession is conclusive, and cannot be controverted by any authentic statement of facts.

8 February 1978, New York Times, "Children's Aid Society: 125 Years of Giving 'Street Kids' a Fair Chance" by Laurie Johnston, pg. B1:
Mr. Brace founded the Children's Aid Society in 1853, proposing that its paid agents and volunteers would secure homes with families for the children and, by means of industrial schools to teach trades, "put them in the way of an honest living." In addition, as a "means of draining the city of these children." Mr. Brace hit on a plan right out of the Pied Piper.

"Orphan Trains" to Middle West

Over the next 75 years, the society shepherded nearly 100,000 New York children to the Middle West in "orphan trains." Away from the city's "vileness, " they were offered for selection (or potential rejection) by "wholesome," mostly farm-dwelling families ready to do their moral duty by providing plentiful food, little if any wages and, frequently, love in return for their help with chores.

11 July 1978, Los Angeles Times, pg. I1:
From Slums to
Country on the
"Orphan Train"

15 July 1984, Los Angeles Times, pg. GB6:
Orphan Train Rolling Again
Saga of Abandoned Children Recounted in Musical

12 November 1988, New York Times, pg. 29:
Leafing Back:
When Orphans
Were Sent West

15 December 1990, New York Times, "Misguided 'Orphan Trains' Idea Rolls On" by Richard Wexler (letter), pg. 26:
Your account of the children forced aboard the "orphan trains" of the 19th and early 20th centuries to be farmed out to strangers (news article, Nov. 20) is the version that the Children's Aid Society likes to tell. There is another side.

You describe the children as orphaned or abandoned. Often they were neither. Data from the society's own records suggest that anywhere from 39 percent to almost half the children had at least one parent still alive, and for most of this group both parents were still living.

In 1872 Thomas P. Norris, president of the Board of Commissioners of Kings County, complained that parents had been coerced into surrendering their children, and many were forced aboard the "orphan trains" without the knowledge or consent of their parents. At a Conference of Charities in 1893 an official of one of the receiving states, North Carolina, charged that the so-called orphans were placed with people who "treat them as slaves."

The children on these trains were the children of the immigrant poor, a group feared and despised by the society's founder, Charles Loring Brace. Most of them were Roman Catholics, a group Brace particularly loathed, as he made clear in his own writing. Brace believed that "gemmules" in the parents' blood made them genetically inferior and their children could be "saved" only by removal from parental influence.
Posted by Barry Popik
Transportation • (1) Comments • Sunday, June 04, 2006 • Permalink