Category: Archive

147 years ago: Orphan trains begin

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward O’Donnell

For 73 years, the so-called orphan trains transported children, many of them Irish and Catholic, from East Coast cities to the Midwest and beyond to be adopted by Protestant farm families.

One hundred and 47 years ago this week, on Sept. 28, 1854, 45 orphaned children were herded aboard a New York train headed west. Their journey would take them several weeks, eventually ending in Dowagiac, Mich. There they would be given to farmers and tradesmen who adopted them into their families. This was the original “orphan train,” the first of hundreds that between 1854 and 1929 transferred as many as 250,000 children — initially mostly Irish — to rural America.

The driving force behind the orphan train program was Charles Loring Brace. A Connecticut-born minister and zealous reformer, he’d come to New York in the 1840s to work among the poor. Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of the charitable agencies he worked for, Brace in 1853 established his own: The Children’s Aid Society.

The focus of Brace and other evangelical Protestants was the surging number of poor people in America’s cities, the majority of whom were Irish Catholic. The experience of famine and desperate flight to America had shattered countless Irish families even before arriving in American cities. Once here they faced harsh work at low wages, nativist bigotry, and dreadful housing conditions. Not surprisingly, one finds Irish names dominating the lists of those arrested, admitted to public hospitals, or taken to orphanages.

Brace and his fellow reformers were motivated to assist the poor by a combination of pity and loathing. By all accounts he was a man deeply moved by the plight of the poor, especially children. Yet he also viewed them as, in his words, “barbarians” — a “ruffian class” that would one day possess the vote. If society did not take steps to reform these “vagabond, ignorant, ungoverned children,” he warned, America would soon succumb to the mob. These were not simply offhand statements, for when Brace wrote his autobiography, he gave it the rather blunt title, “The Dangerous Classes and My Twenty Years Among Them.”

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When Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, New York had tens of thousands of homeless children. In contrast to other charitable agencies that emphasized placing children in reformatories or similar institutions, Brace advocated “placing out.” Like many mid-19th Century Americans, Brace believed in the beneficent and moral qualities of rural life. Remove the “street rats” from the city, he argued, and place them in good, Protestant homes and they stand a chance of growing up to become decent, hard-working, law-abiding Protestant Americans.

It was that last point that so enraged Catholic clergymen. They rejected Brace’s claim of wanting to help innocent children. He was a kidnapper, who in the words of one Catholic newspaper editor, went about “seizing children in the name of charity and of religion, and carrying them away to be brought up aliens to the Catholic faith.”

There was an element of truth to this charge. Brace made no effort to conceal his contempt for Catholicism. It was one of the several negative influences — right up there with alcoholism, crime, and tuberculosis — from which he wanted to protect children.

Moreover, many children were not orphans at all. Some were the offspring of desperate mothers pressured into placing them with the CAS. Others were children who simply got lost on city streets and were swept up in Brace’s system. Such a story was related in the pages of the Irish-American, a weekly newspaper, in 1882. It related the story of how John Donovan, while away serving in the Union Army, lost his 5-year-old daughter, Ann, to the orphan trains. She’d gotten lost on the way home from school. Turned over to the CAS by a policeman, she was sent to Ohio and adopted. Donovan and his wife presumed she’d been kidnapped but never gave up hope of finding her. They were reunited in 1882 when a friend suggested they check the CAS records. As the title of the article — “New York Kidnappers — How Irish Children are Lost” – makes clear, the Irish did not view Charles Loring Brace as a selfless hero devoted to helping the poor.

In response, church leaders challenged the authority of the CAS to remove children from Catholic families. They also established a Catholic “placing out” program that sent thousands of orphans and troubled children to Catholic families living in rural areas. They also redoubled their efforts to build a vast network of Catholic institutions, especially parochial schools.

Despite the anger aroused by the CAS among Irish Catholics, it must be recognized that the organization did provide many valuable services to the poor. As Stephen O’Connor notes in his recent book, “The Orphan Trains,” the CAS provided thousands of children with vocational training at its 21 industrial schools. It also operated kindergartens, night schools for adults, and lodging houses where homeless youth could stay for 10 cents a night. CAS officials also investigated 55,000 cases of child abuse and successfully prosecuted 18,000 offenders. And it must be admitted that many children benefited from the orphan train program. While some were adopted by heartless families seeking free labor, many were absorbed into loving homes and went on to lead successful lives. John Brady, for example, became governor of Alaska. His friend Andrew Burke became governor of North Dakota.

By the turn of the century only a small number of children riding the orphan trains were Irish. In their place were representatives of the new streams of immigration coming to America — Jewish, Italian and Slavic children. But attitudes were changing. More and more, the care of at-risk children had shifted from private organizations to government social workers. And the goal of such care shifted from an emphasis on hard work and discipline to the need for play, education, and emotional development. The last orphan train left New York for Texas on May 31, 1929.


Sept. 26, 1798: Presbyterian preacher Elijah Craig of Kentucky receives a patent for a distinctly American form of whiskey, bourbon.

Sept. 28, 1920: In retaliation for an IRA attack on an Army barracks in Mallow, Co. Cork, British troops sack and burn the town.

Oct. 2, 1933: Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Ah Wilderness,” opens in New York at the Guild Theater.


Sept. 27, 1847: Famed boxer and trainer, Mike “the professor” Donovan.

Sept. 28, 1786: Bishop of Charleston, John England, is born in Cork.

Sept. 28, 1902: Television show host Ed Sullivan is born in New York City.

Sept. 29, 1908: Actress Greer Garson is born in County Down.

Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.

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