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The Ride of a Lifetime on the Orphan Train

From about 1853 to well into the twentieth century the Orphan Trains labored westward from New York and Boston carrying children to the heartland and beyond in search of new homes. The trains were the vision of Charles Loring Brace, a young minister, and founder of the Children’s Aid Society in New York. He had witnessed the horrors of young children on the streets and in the slums of New York. Many were forced to beg or steal in order to survive. Some slept in the doorways and alleys of the city. They existed in “the most deplorable conditions the mind can conceive”. His hope was to send them to the interior of the country to morally upright and compassionate families where they might make new, constructive lives for themselves

While the name “Orphan Train” implies these children had no parents, this was not always the case. Many had one or even both parents but, either the parents could not or would not, fulfill their obligations. Some caring but desperate parents volunteered their children, hoping they would find a better life and opportunities that they would never be offered in the cities. Some were taken from homes of abuse and neglect. All were no doubt bewildered by the circumstances in which they were involved. In any case, they were placed on the trains and shipped westward.

Before each stop the children were dressed in clean clothes and their faces were scrubbed. They would step down to the platform or be taken to a designated area to be inspected by their new, prospective foster parents. The applicants for the children were to have been screened by a committee in each town and pronounced fit to receive one or more of the children. To achieve the best response and inform citizens of the opportunity to obtain a child, advertisements preceded the arrival of the trains. One such advertisement to Madison stated, “It is proposed by the Children’s Aid Society, from New York, to send to this city, within about six weeks, a company of poor and homeless children, under their care. Those who wish to take one or more of these children into their family, should make application immediately by one of the following gentlemen, who will serve as a committee.” Application was to be made to John King, Samuel Cochran or Rev. Samuel Collins. The children were to be taken to the Presbyterian Church at ten o’clock in the morning – to be disposed of.

The society tried to keep track of their charges stating the children were not bound but expected to remain with the family until of age. If a child was not treated right, the Society was to take charge or if they became a burden, the child would revert to the Society’s care. All applicants were to be of good character in every respect. The Society corresponded with the children and parents and in some cases there were visitations from a representative of the Society. Adoption was not necessary but the foster parents were to house and educate the children as their own.

Hanover also was given notice that children would be available for placement in February of 1861. “Those who feel an interest in orphan children, or who may be willing to take one or more of them and rear them to industry and virtue, are requested to meet at Hanover on Friday, the 8th February, at 2 p.m., to aid in the distribution of these children.” Application for acquiring one or more children was to be made to Mr. John King of Madison or to Rev. Mr. Arnott, Mr. Dean or Prof. Thompson, of Hanover.

Tens of thousands of children went through this process for almost seventy-five years. There were mistakes made and some children simply exchanged one misery for another but these seem to be the exception, not the rule. Most went on to lead normal, productive lives and some became successful businessmen, judges and even governors in their states.

Among of the names added to Jefferson County due to the Orphan Train project are Sullivan, Hartman, Marshall and Cornell.