// by Ron P. Whittington
In the early 1900s, an experiment aimed at finding homes for thousands of homeless children in New York City came to Jacksonville.
It was called the Orphan Train Movement and was the brainchild of Charles Loring Brace, a minister and early social worker best known as the representative of nineteenth-century child rescue.
Brace, who founded the New York Children’s Aid Society in 1853, promoted the idea that the best method of helping vagrant children in the city—estimated at about 30,000 that year—would be to put them on trains to live out their lives with families in the country’s vast rural areas.
The children, who ranged from age six to 18, shared a common existence. Homeless or neglected, they lived in New York City streets and slums with little or no hope of a successful future. Brace believed that the way to change the children’s station in life was to remove them from the poverty and debauchery of the city streets and place them with morally upright farm families. In leaving the big city behind, Brace believed they would have a chance of escaping a lifetime of suffering.
According to Christina Baker Klein, who did extensive research in writing her 2013 novel Orphan Train, nearly a quarter of a million children were transported before the social experiment ended.
“It was the heyday of rail travel, and when you read about the trains there’s a lot of contradictory information, but the children were principally sent to farmers in the Midwestern and Western states where the government was in the habit of giving land away to farmers at the time,” Klein says. “That was how it all started.”
In addition to the Western U.S., some trains went to Canada and Mexico, with Orphan Trains eventually making stops in East Coast cities.
“There are train companies that kept maps that show that these train riders went all over the place, but it’s difficult to get hard numbers on how many and where they ended up,” Klein says.
The movement ventured to Florida in the early 1900s, where organizers in the Northeast were counting on the support from wealthy families and local farmers to take the children.
However, instead of the rich families they expected, the children arrived in Jacksonville just after The Great Fire destroyed most of the city—putting a strain on any potential philanthropic dollars that could be offered by the wealthy. On its trek through Florida, the train carried 400 children and Jacksonville was its last stop in the state.
“The girls from eight to 14 years old were generally the last to be chosen because they were considered to be ‘fallen,’ a threat to the female of the household and, unlike boys, they would have to live in the home and had to be socialized—whereas the boys could sleep, eat and even live in the barns…and they did, sometimes,” says Klein.
Klein notes that babies were also popular for placement depending on the location, and while boys of eight to 14 were the most popular, they were often the most troubled.
“Many had lived on the streets as gang members or pick-pockets,” she says. “They were the first to be chosen because they were needed, but they often had a lot of trouble assimilating.”
The plight of the train orphans in Jacksonville led to the creation of Children’s Home Society in Florida in November of 1902. With help from local clergy, the state organization was founded by another minister, Reverend D.W. Comstock. Comstock had established several branches of the organization in states including Arkansas and West Virginia before arriving in Florida.
“We know that as an organization, we started as a staff of two and we were able to find homes for 21 of the children,” says Kymberly Cook, executive director at the Jacksonville office of Children’s Home Society.
As for where all the kids ended up in Northeast Florida, it’s impossible to know. Cook says there are no records on the children who arrived in Jacksonville and where they were placed.
According to the National Orphan Train Complex, many times babies were placed in the care of churches and other religious organizations before they left on the trains without a parent ever being seen, while many of the older children and their parents couldn’t read, write or speak English. That, and the fact that children were literally taken off the streets and the sheer numbers of orphans dispatched by trains, prevented accurate records from being kept.
As for the Orphan Trains, it turns out the originator of the idea, Brace, had less altruistic reasons for establishing the program.
As an evangelical reformer, he wanted to remove the children of poor Catholics from crowded urban and family environments and place them in Anglo-Protestant farming families in small towns and rural areas. Not surprisingly, an ideology that seemed benevolent and humanitarian to many Protestants earned Brace a reputation in Catholic communities as a child-stealer rather than a child-saver.
However, his program did stir sectarian groups to develop their own social services and child-caring institutions, such as orphanages. In the late nineteenth century, the Catholic Church built institutions at a furious pace in sharp contrast with the trend toward placing-out children (by 1910, there were 322 infant asylums and orphanages serving almost 70,000 children annually).
In a sense, the unusual and controversial social experiment is now recognized as the beginning of the foster care concept in the United States.
The last Orphan Trains ran in 1929.
Klein says that while there was growing backlash in the Midwest, where a number of editorials were written condemning the program for shipping “the criminal element” where it could “infect the rural areas” of the U.S., the real reason it ended was economic.
“One of the most shocking things I found was that the train companies were subsidizing their travel because they wanted to populate these very unpopulated cities in the west,” she says. “In 1929, they stopped subsidizing the travel of the orphans and that’s really the major reason the program ended.”
Although the “placing-out” program operated in the U.S. for about 75 years, until recently it was a little-known part of the history of America.
Part of the renewed fascination is because the children’s stories are poignant. But, more than that, the program is a reminder of how unsuccessful the nation has been in finding solutions to the problems of childhood poverty.
“When we read descriptions of New York City or Boston in the nineteenth century, we realize those days are not very far off from today,” says writer and researcher Marilyn Holt, author of the book The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. “We have the problems with foster care. A lot of the same criticisms we find with the Orphan Train are valid today.”