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All Aboard: Orphan Train Riders

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Kendall Davis is well-versed in the English language. She has 20 years experience as a published author and writing for clients. Her published works include historical articles in museums, magazines, newspaper articles, columns, content marketing, advertising copy, blogging, and academic papers. Kendall also makes her way in the literary world as a copyeditor. Writing about history is her first love interest. If you have editing or content needs on your website or for your books, articles, blogs, or columns, please visit her website to see details and more examples of her work, the services she offers, and contact information.

Guttersnipes, Rag Pickers, Street Arabs, and Scoundrels

In 1850 between 10,000 and 30,000 orphaned and abandoned children struggled on the streets of New York City (NYC) to survive by any means possible. This included stealing food, valuable metals, anything they could pawn off, begging, digging in garbage for food, and even becoming slaves to unscrupulous promoters for adult entertainment.

Charitable social workers found children as young as eight years old drunk and high on the opioid narcotics of the day gambling with money from selling stolen goods. Some street children supported their families who lived in tenement housing with their earnings. Others had run away to escape unbearable abusive environments. Many joined street gangs and when arrested, were jailed with adults.

The Industrial Revolution created a working class especially susceptible to poverty, disease, crowded living conditions, and dangerous work environments. The population in NYC in 1850 had climbed up to 76.1 million people with the majority immigrating from Ireland, England, and Germany. Immigrants had no extended family support. Working-class men toiled in dangerous jobs and frequently died or became disabled. Their widows and children turned to whatever they could find, legal or illegal, to support their families. Other families auctioned their children to farmers in Vermont and New Hampshire, and some children were raised in almshouses.

Disease ran rampant through the poverty-stricken working-class communities. Overcrowded orphanages released fourteen-year-old teenagers into the city streets and expected them to survive with no community or support. Orphanages did not accept babies and toddlers. Mothers surrendered their babies to foundling hospitals or sold their babies to baby farms. The New York Foundling Hospital opened in 1869 and is still alive today! (1) (2) (3)

Enter Charles Loring Brace

Charles Loring Brace, born in Litchfield Connecticut in 1826, created a profound and long-lasting charity that changed the lives of the east coast abandoned street children. He attended Yale College at age sixteen and became fast friends with German-born brothers, John and Frederick Olmstead .* After his graduation and intent on a career in social reform, Charles studied for the ministry at Yale Divinity School for a year and then transferred to the liberal Union Theological Seminary.

During his college career, Charles ministered to several institutions like Blackwell’s Island Asylum which employed convicts and where patients suffered from extremely poor diets and frequent disease outbreaks. He wanted to work in practical rather than theological applications of social reform. After college, Charles accompanied the Olmstead brothers, also dedicated to social reform, on a tour of Europe. In Germany, the Olmsteads introduced Charles to an orphanage named Rauhe House, one of Germany’s best known Christian welfare societies today. (4) (5)

A young theologian named Johann Hinrich Wichern established Rauhe House in 1833 to aid homeless street children in Hamburg, Germany. Both Americans and Europeans housed orphaned babies, children, and the mentally ill in barrack-style institutions of that era. Johann petitioned politicians to fund an orphanage. Rauhe House became the next best thing to a family environment. Rauhe House consisted of small thatched peasant cottages that provided 10 to 12 children with a caretaker in a rural setting. (6) Charles returned to NYC with an enlightened perspective of how to care for abandoned children.

Enter the Children’s Aid Society

It is 1853 and Charles establishes the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) with this mission statement: An organization dedicated to the training and general improvement of the conditions of the homeless and friendless children roaming the streets of New York.” Charles embraced children who did not receive acceptable supervision whether they lived on the street or in abusive homes. He desired to satisfy his mission without warehousing children in barracks with uncaring supervision.

Charles declared that asylums were inconsistent with American attitudes and they breed a species of character which is monastic—indolent, unused to struggle; subordinate indeed, but with little independence and manly vigor. Rather than inspiring virtue in children, asylums often lead to a hidden growth of secret and contagious vices. Asylums and city institutions fail to reach a vast multitude of neglected children who are growing up in the worst habits, but who could not in any legal sense of the term be called vagrant. The CAS reaches out to a broad swath of poor children. Through its lodging houses, industrial schools, and orphan trains, it attempts to place these children on a path to virtue and out of poverty. (8) 

Whoo! Whoo! Chugga! Chugga! Orphan Train Riders Roll

The Orphan Train Movement in America describes an era between 1853 and 1929. While its industrial north overflowed with labor problems, rural midwest America experienced numerous hardships; one of which was farm labor shortages. The CAS was not the first organization to utilize trains to transport children to supposedly better homes and families. That idea belongs to the Reverend George Merrill’s Children’s Mission to the Children of the Destitute Society in Boston, Massachusetts.

Reverend Merrill persuaded his congregation to have Sunday school students donate pennies for train fare for homeless children to travel to Vermont and New Hampshire to find better homes. (9) But, Charles Brace is credited with the 76-year Orphan Train Movement.** First, the CAS contacted local church officials and then ran newspaper notices, posted handbills in the general stores, taverns, and railroad depots about homeless boys and girls from NYC a few weeks before the children arrived in that town.

The first Orphan Train cars can only be described as worse than today’s cattle cars with no bathroom facilities. The first CAS train carried 45 children from age six to a few teenagers to Dowagiac, Michigan. Most were between the ages of eight and ten. The first CAS party used three transportation modes. The children rode in a riverboat up the Hudson River and slept in berths the first night. Then they transferred to a freight train in a pitch-back car with German and Irish immigrants heading west. Lastly, they boarded a steamer train where the children were soiled by excrement from the animals riding in the upper deck of their car. As the CAS grew, the traveling conditions greatly improved. Eventually, the Orphan Trains deposited children all over America including Alaska, and some came to Texomaland.

Both the CAS and New York Foundling Hospital plus a few other charities supplied the orphans. Usually, 30 to 40 babies, children, and teenagers traveled with two or three chaperones. Sometimes those children had no clue as to where they were going. It was a gamble. Not even the CAS knew with whom the children would live. At the beginning of their journey, the children were scared and confused. The older kids were encouraged to forget their past, and the younger ones often lost all contact with their eastern relatives. That whole operation sounds extremely cruel in today’s mindset, but government child welfare commissions are totally broken even in the 20th century. (10) (11)

Authorities on this subject vary in their estimations of how many children became Orphan Train Riders, but their number falls between 150,000 and 250,000 adoptees. ***

Orphan Trains: Destination—Texomaland

“I’d just finished eating and this matron came by and tapped us along the head. ‘You’re going to Texas. You’re going to Texas.’ Well, some of the kids, you know, clapped and laughed. When she came to me, I looked up. I said, ‘I can’t go. I’m not an orphan. My mother’s still living. She’s in a hospital right here in New York.’ ‘You’re going to Texas.’ No use arguing.” —Hazelle Latimer (Orphan Train rider) (12)

In an excerpt from another Orphan Train Rider, Lee Nailling (81 at the time of the interview), of Atlanta, Texas, remembers a large farmer sticking his hand into his mouth to see if his teeth were sound. Nailling said, ”It was all I could do to resist the urge to bite him.” (13) ****

Anna Jo Pennington Bassett—1913-1994—Whitewright Orphan Train Rider

Two Orphan Trains stopped in Whitewright, Texas, in 1918 and 1920, when the town operated with seven grocers, three drugstores, two cotton gins, two banks, and two train depots.

Excerpts from Anna Jo’s Story:

"When the train stopped in Whitewright, there were 21 little faces anxiously looking out the windows… I think I was taken to the orphanage by a relative when I was three – I have never wanted to know more… The orphanage I lived at was in New York City. I was well-treated. I remember a room with 25 or 30 little white, iron beds…There were two sponsors, Mrs. Hill, and Mrs. Peterson, who rode with 21 children from New York. All I know about them is that they came down the Hudson River on a ship to Grand Central Station to ride the train with us… Mrs. Bassett... does not know how many days the journey took that cold January in 1918 and does not remember any stops until the stop at the Katy Depot in Whitewright…There were several children younger than Mrs. Bassett and at least one set of twins who were two years of age…

"The first night was spent in the Smith Hotel next to the Katy Depot…We each had our own suitcase with a few changes of clothes and our belongings. Early the next morning, we were up and dressed, hoping to meet our new parents. We went to the city hall, where there were quite a few people gathered to see us…There was one man I noticed with a twinkle in his eye and a big smile on his face. He kept looking at me. I wasn’t shy, so soon I started talking and dancing for Mr. J.R. [Dick] Pennington.

"Pretty soon, [Dick] he said he had to go get his wife who hadn’t been able to come that morning…No, I wasn’t worried about not finding parents, there were several who showed an interest in me that day… After Mrs. Pennington saw little Miss Anna Miller [birth surname that she dropped], the Penningtons went home to think about what adopting a child would mean to their lives. The Penningtons were nearly 50 and childless, but evidently, they decided Anna was the daughter for them. Mr. Pennington was a land dealer. It seemed a little voice, was whispering to them, ‘Please be my mother and father’…

"The next morning, [Dick and Jenny] the Penningtons returned to the city hall to talk with Anna’s sponsor, and that afternoon, the Penningtons proudly escorted their new 5-year-old, brown-haired and brown-eyed, dancing and singing daughter to their home in Whitewright… Mrs. Bassett attended high school in Whitewright and began college at East Texas State University. But as a freshman in 1932, she met Floyd Bassett, a senior and ‘fell madly in love, and that was the end of college’… I have always felt I was special because Dick and Jenny Pennington adopted me. I only hope I brought them as much pleasure as they gave me.”

Anna and Floyd had three children. One daughter, Dixie Basset, born in 1938, lived in Sherman until she died in 2007. Before her death, Anna attended an Orphan Train Veteran’s Reunion in Granberry, Texas, sponsored by the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc. She had always wondered where she learned to sing and dance, “At the reunion there was a rider who had been in the same dormitory with me. She was older and remembered that those of us who showed some ability were taken to music lessons once a week.” (14) (15)

Orphan Train Rider Genealogy

If you are interested in family members that might have been Orphan Train Riders, there are several organizations dedicated to the historical preservation of the orphans who came west to make their hopeful way in a better world. National organizations include the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc. in Springdale, Arkansas, and the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas.

By accident, I found a list of the Texas orphan’s birth and adopted surnames with towns they settled in (probably incomplete), but I could not find one for Oklahoma. It entails hardcore genealogical research to dig into this subject.

Great Videos 


* Interested in slave economy and commissioned to write articles for the New York Times, [Frederick Law] Olmsted made extensive tours throughout the South from 1852 to 1857. One of the products of this travel was A Journey through Texas (1857). On his route via Natchitoches down the Old San Antonio Road, through the German settlements, down to the coastal prairie towns, through San Antonio, Eagle Pass, Houston, and Liberty, Olmsted commented on all phases of town and country life in Texas. NEED CITATION

** I did not find documentation that Charles Brace knew of Reverend Merrill’s Orphan Train mission, but surely he did found his charitable work based on Reverend Merrill’s efforts.

*** Author Stephen O’Connor paints a realistic picture of these orphans in his book, Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed. Not all of the children adopted off of the Orphan Trains found a happily-ever-after life. Some were used as cheap labor. The following video features Stephen O’Connor speaking about his book on Orphan Trains. They were never called Orphan Trains at that time. The movement spawned one Supreme Court justice, two governors, several congressmen, and also ne’er-do-wells. Charles Loring Brace is known as the father of modern foster care. By the 1920s, our government entities began to take over the care of children in difficult situations, and the Orphan Train Movement ended in 1929. (16)

**** Nature Boy: Song written by an Orphan Train Rider Eden Ahbez, recorded by Nat King Cole (his first song credited as a solo artist) and George Benson. 


1. Orphan Train (Kansas State Historical Society)

2. Charles Loring Brace

3. Whitewright’s Anna Jo Pennington Basset at Age 5

4. Children Sleeping in NYC

5. Guttersnipes

6. Gambling Street Urchins

7. Boys Dormitory at Brace’s Children’s Aid Society

8. Hand Bill Advertising Orphan Train Riders

9. Orphans and Their Chaperones in Arkansas

10. Map Showing Incomplete Numbers of Delivered Orphan Train Riders



(2) Rivlin, Leanne G., and Lynne C. Manzo. “Homeless Children In New York City: A View From The 19th Century.” Children's Environments Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 1, 1988, pp. 26–33. JSTOR

(3) The New York Foundling Hospital



(6) Rauhe House

(7) Today's Children’s Aid Society


(9) Holloran, Peter C. Boston's Wayward Children: Social Services for Homeless Children 1830-1930 . Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Pr, 1989. (p. 44)



(12) Warren, Andrea. “THE ORPHAN TRAIN.”

The Washington Post, 11 Nov. 1998,


(14) Dixie Bassett Obituary

(15) "Orphan Trains: the Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed." The Annals of Iowa 64 (2005), 80-81.

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