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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Orphan Trains

One of my goals in my Renaissance Mind self-challenge was to watch 2 documentaries from Netflix a month. Last month, I watched 3-- two were interesting, the third was not so great.

The other night, I watched this month's first documentary, and it was fascinating! I'd never heard of this particular segment of our American history, and The Orphan Trains was so fascinating that I made Fee watch it with me the second time.

During the 1850's, a young minister named Charles Loring Brace was stunned and saddened by the abandoned street children in New York. I've read about these abandoned children many times, but was totally unaware of Brace's solution to the problem. He formed the Children's Aid Society and began shipping the children to farming communities in the West, hoping that loving Christian families could take the children in and save them from the horrible conditions they faced alone on the streets of New York.

Everything was well-documented. Names of children, where they went, entries in Brace's journals, letters from the children and their new families, etc. From the 1850's until 1929, the Orphan Trains carried over 150,000 children from New York to points west.

Some of these situations didn't work out so well; despite the efforts of the Children's Aid Society, many potential families were no better vetted than foster families are today and the check ups on situations were difficult and spotty because there were so many placements. Some families undoubtedly saved the lives of many children; other situations must have been terrible disasters. Photographs of the children taken by Brace's photographer and by the families that took the children in tell a remarkable story on their own, but the interviews with many elderly individuals who rode the trains to new homes from the early part of the 2oth century are both engrossing and touching.

Brace worked hard to save the children who wandered bare foot and slept in door ways, but he grappled with the dilemma of what to do to help:

"When a child of the streets stands before you in rags, with a tear-stained face, you cannot easily forget him. And yet, you are perplexed what to do. The human soul is difficult to interfere with. You hesitate how far you should go."

The Orphan Trains is a remarkable story and a remarkable documentary. I highly recomment it.

More information can be found here (and these are just a few sites):

Charles Loring Brace

Orphan Trains
The Adoption History Project
The Children's Aid Society
National Orphan Train Complex

Cross-posted at Bayou Quilts.


  1. I enjoyed this series, too, and recently got a copy of a book that centers on the orphans brought here to Arizona. I'm looking forward to reading it.

  2. Cathy - I hope to read more on the subject myself, in both fiction and nonfiction!

  3. Jenclair,

    Have you heard the song called "The Orphan Train" by the wonderful group Dry Branch Fire Squad? If not, I think you'll love tells the same story in song.

    The group also does a song called "Oprhan Child" that is similar and their latest album includes one called "Rider on the Orphan Train" that tells the story from the point-of-view of a man looking for his long lost brother who rode the train with him.

    Fantastic stuff...

  4. Sam - I saw in my research that Utah Phillips had a song about the Orphan Train, but I'm off to see about Dry Branch Fire Squad. Thanks, Sam!

  5. This sounds really neat! I've been watching more documentaries on Netflix too; I've really enjoyed Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion, Jesus Camp (about Evangelicals in America), Promises (about kids in Israel/Palestine), and the Jazz series (it's really long, but so interesting!).

  6. Eva - I have quite a few documentaries in my que, but Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion sounds especially good! Thanks, Eva!

  7. I saw Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion when I was in Boulder with my son. It is excellent. Your blog is delightful and interesting. Thank you.

  8. This looks really interesting! More for me to look into. :)

  9. I have always been interested by the orphan trains and would like to watch this. Thanks for the info on it!

  10. When my daughter was in elementary school and I volunteered in her school library, the librarian steered me toward a Joan Lowery Nixon series about the Orphan Trains. It was very good. I'm glad to hear about this documentary. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Jenclair.

  11. averyclaire - I've added Tibet: The Cry of the Snow Lion to my que. Two great recommendations for the film from you and Eva!

    Kailana - Always more to look into, isn't there!

    Amy - The documentary really is worth watching!

    Kay - Glad that there is a good series for elementary students!

  12. I've never heard of the Orphan Trains and to think it went on for 79 years. I'm going to add this documentary to my Netflix list.

  13. Oh I haven't watched a good documentary in a while. This one sounds very interesting. I had heard of the orphan trains via a fiction book I must have read a long time ago as I can't think of title or author. I just remember being shocked. I had no idea.

  14. booklogged- I had never heard of them either. I think some of the states that received large numbers of the orphans probably have much greater awareness.

    iliana - I have been having excellent luck with documentaries lately, but this is my favorite. I have found links that include both fiction and nonfiction titles on the subject, and I plan to read more.

  15. WHAT CAN WE AMERICANS DO ABOUT THE ORPHAN CRISIS IN OUR COUNTRY TODAY? I am not happy about the Hollywood publicity seekers who adopt African children or any kid from another country while our own orphanages and streets are overflowing with parentless children. has some unbelievable statistics on orphans in the USA.