The Orphan Train

by Elder M. Lindahl

Charles Loring Brace (1826-1890), a Methodist Minister, believed it was his Christian duty to help the multitudes of homeless New York City children. His mission was to round up orphaned, neglected, or homeless children who roamed the streets by day and night and put them on trains bound for the Midwest and elsewhere for placement into rural homes.

Many of these unwanted kids had been in trouble with the law; some, even as young as five, had served time as criminals in adult jails. Pastor Brace's ambitious program was motivated by a Christian concern for the poor and the parentless and by a firm belief in the importance of a good nurturing environment.

The arrangements for placing orphan children varied. Sometimes they were pre-ordered by couples; at other times a local screening committee tried to make sure the children would be given to good parents; at other times the scene was more random. A train would stop in a town, and the orphan children, spiffed up for the occasion, would be presented to the local citizens. Rejected children would be returned to the train to await their luck at the next station.

Brace received special discounts on fares for the orphan children from the railroads. Whole coaches were sometimes filled with these kids. Prior to departure, they were bathed, given new clothes, a coat, often a Bible, and reminded of good manners. The Children’s Aid Society tried at first to keep in touch with each child through letters and an annual visit.

Placements were to be made on a trial basis, and legal adoption was optional. Dissatisfied children could leave, but those who stayed were expected to work as contributing members of the household. Foster parents were asked to care for the neglected children as their very own. The program was in effect for some 75 years, from 1854 to 1929, and an estimated 200,000 or more children were placed in foster homes in 47 different States. Forty-three Michigan cities received children from ages 3-16.

A high percentage, some say 87%, of these rescued children found their lives vastly improved and became happy, successful people. Others, less fortunate, became indentured, and were used as cheap farm labor. Still others, though given a good chance and a positive environment, were unable for various reasons to make anything of their lives. In the orphan train literature, one finds both failure and success stories. In what follows, I cite the cases of Charles Bartell and John Brady as illustrations of each.

Born in New York City in 1897, Charley at about age 11 was put on an Orphan train bound for the Midwest. At the stop after Green Bay, Wisconsin, he was chosen by my Great Grandparents, August and Adele Bartell. For a variety of reasons, Charley had trouble fitting into their family. His adoptive parents, who homesteaded a farm near Daggett, Michigan, were in their 60s at the time. Charley had emotional problems and had to be institutionalized in the State Hospital in Newberry, Michigan where he was for most of his adult life. Relatives would occasionally visit him, but it was always sad. Sometimes Charley would acknowledge them, but mostly he was reclusive and antisocial. He died at Newberry and is buried in Menominee, Michigan. His tombstone reads: Charles Bartell, 1897-1974.

Whether the move to beautiful Upper Michigan made any difference for Charley is an open, hypothetical question. Who he was and became was determined by his genes as well as by the twists of fortune—the significant people in his childhood and the environment in which he lived. All I can conclude at this point is that because of Pastor Brace and others, Charley did have a chance to experience rural family life; yet because of poor new-family fit and his mental problems, he was unable to benefit from it. He probably would have fared as poorly wandering the streets of New York City as he did in his new rural setting. Who really knows?

On the Internet, one finds a great variety of successful orphan train stories. One which is celebrated is that of John Green Brady who was born in 1848 in New York City. His mother died when he was young, and he was raised by an abusive, alcoholic father. John ran away from home at the age of seven and roamed the city streets until he was picked up by the police and put in a refuge for homeless boys on Randall’s Island. He found himself at age 12 on an orphan train headed for the Midwest. At the Noblesville, Indiana stop, a Judge John Green selected him as the "homeliest, toughest, most unpromising boy in the lot" of motley youngsters, a real challenge. Dramatic changes occurred on that Indiana farm and by 1877 John Brady had graduated from Yale College and Union Theological Seminary. He became a Presbyterian minister, lawyer, missionary, trader, and eventually served three terms as Territorial Governor of Alaska (1897-1908).1 He married Elizabeth Jane Patton in 1887 and they raised a family of five children. Governor Brady died in 1918 and is buried in the National Cemetery in Sitka, Alaska.

Pastor Brace, with his grandiose program for the care and nurture of the lost children roaming the streets of New York, was a pioneer in our social welfare system and deserves recognition and praise.

1. Of special interest to North Parkers is the fact that Governor Brady, who was in office during the No. 9 Above days, once spoke at the Philharmonic Society at the College. Leland H. Carlson, A History of North Park College, p. 133