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Orphan Trains - Story and Discussion

Guest Author - Paula Laurita

Teach students about the Orphan Trains, the social conditions that lead up to this action, and the process for finding new homes for the children.

Ever since ancient times there has been a problem of unwanted children. In 19th century New York City a baby was found abandoned every day on a doorstep, in trash, or in a back alley. The population of New York City was approximately 500,000. It was estimated by the police that there were 10,000 homeless children living on the streets and many more living in orphanages. There were over a 1,000 immigrants arriving in New York daily.

The overcrowding of slums produced many outbreaks of yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, typhus, and other infections that thrived in unsanitary conditions. This left many children without parents. Many of the children ran away from abusive parents, or were kicked out by parents when they could no longer provide for them.

A movement to send these children to new homes in the west to start a new life was begun. It was popularized by the Reverend Charles Loring Brace of the Children's Aid Society.

Between 1854 and 1930, these "placing out" programs were responsible for more than 200,000 children riding the "orphan trains." Many children found loving parents and did well. Some children never felt at home with their new families, and some were treated as cheap labor or mistreated.

Featured Book:
Orphan Train Rider : One Boy's True Story, by Andrea Warren.

This is the story of Lee Nailings' trip on an orphan train to Texas and getting a new family in 1926. Lee was one of seven children who were parceled out to relatives and orphanages when his mother died in childbirth. After living in an orphanage with a younger brother for two years, they were joined by the youngest brother.

The three boys were put on the orphan train with no understanding of what was happening. They were placed out in separate homes in the same general area. Their foster families made point of letting the brothers spend the summers together. They took turns at each house. Lee had a hard time adjusting to his family and trusting them, but eventually came to love them and have a close relationship with his adoptive parents. Chapters are alternated with a historical account of the orphan trains.

Discussion Topics:

  • How would you feel about being taken on such a journey to find a new family? What if you had parents who couldn't provide for you? Is this a problem today? What are the differences between then and now?
  • How do you think the actual train ride was then as compared to transportation today?
  • Why is this an important chapter in our history?
  • How are do you think it was for the city children to fit into their new lives? Country vs. city. New families. New schools.
  • Why do you think the orphan trains were discontinued? Did they serve their purpose successfully?

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Content copyright © 2013 by Paula Laurita. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Paula Laurita. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Christine Sharbrough for details.

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