What to do with 30,000 "excess" kids?

By Carol / January 28, 2014 /

Dealing with homeless children 100 years ago

In the 1800s, boatloads of immigrants arrived in U.S. port cities. They came seeking the American dream; the reality they faced was often more a nightmare.  Large families, poverty, and untimely deaths from childbirth or disease, left thousands of children on the streets. These children survived as pickpockets, beggars, or prostitutes. By the mid-1850s, it’s estimated that 30,000 children lived on New York streets.

What became of those children is a lesser-known part of American history that became known as the Orphan Train Movement.

The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) was a New York agency formed to help care for these “excess” children. Not all of the children were orphaned. Some were abandoned. Some were given over to the CAS because the parents simply couldn’t take care of them.

Orphan Train Riders

Orphan Train Riders

Workers at the CAS and another charity institution, The New York Foundling Hospital, sought better lives for the children, looking for homes with families in rural areas of the country.  The Orphan Train Movement transported children–ranging in age from infants to 16–by rail to new homes. Between 1854 and the early 1930s, the two organizations placed between 200,000 and 250,000 children in homes across 47 states and several Canadian provinces. Some 10,000 of those children came to Iowa.

I learned about the Orphan Train riders in the course of researching an article on the subject for The Iowan magazine. The topic fascinated me so much that I’ve included an Orphan Train thread in my upcoming novel Go Away Home.

By the time I was doing my research, Iowa’s Orphan Train riders had all passed away. My interviews included the children of riders, and the stories they tell are both poignant and powerful. Mary McLain is one of those I interviewed.

Mary McLain’s favorite story when she was growing up was Little Orphan Annie.  As a kindergartner, she dressed up as Annie for Halloween, wearing a dress her mother took out of a box tucked away in the back of a closet.  It would be many years–long after her mother passed away–before McLain learned the story behind that dress, before she learned how closely her mother’s life mirrored that of Little Orphan Annie.

McLain’s mother, Viola Volkert, was born in New York in 1907. When Viola was three, her mother contracted tuberculosis and was placed in a sanitarium.  Viola’s father could not care for his three daughters and one son, so he placed the girls with the CAS.

When Viola and her sisters entered that orphanage, they took the first step on a journey into this unique part of American history. Viola and her sisters rode the Orphan Train to Clear Lake, Iowa. The girls were all sent to separate homes.

In 1958, Viola handed a box to her daughter, Mary McLain, by then an adult. “She said, ‘I want you to have these; I know you’ll take good care of them,'” McLain remembers, “but I didn’t ask ‘Whose are these?'” Only after Viola died in 1977 did McLain begin to uncover her mother’s story.

McLain discovered that the three dresses in the box, plus three pair of underwear and a pair of shoes, were everything her mother owned when she came to Iowa.

Many Orphan Train riders did not talk easily about that part of their lives. Being an orphan was considered shameful. Speaking about it might be seen as disrespectful to the people who took you in. This was a generation that did not talk about private things. For some, their experience was not positive.

Bill Nelson was eight years old when he came to Iowa. His father gave Bill up to the orphanage, but kept Bill’s older brother, Arthur. Bill’s first family wanted him only for the hard work. The CAS matron who checked up on the placement removed him from that home. Ultimately, he was taken in by a woman whose children were all grown. But when the Depression hit, she could no longer afford to keep him. Bill was on his own at age fifteen.

All his life, Bill carried a picture of his brother and himself–the one connection he had to his former family. His daughter did the research to find her father’s brother, still living in New Jersey. When the brothers finally met, they were both in their 80s. Arthur carried the same picture with him.

All his life, Bill had carried the hurt of being rejected by his father. It was only after telling his story at an Orphan Train reunion, a story that he’d kept inside most of his life, that he was finally able to say with some pride, “I’m part of American history.”


The Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital continue in operation today. The National Orphan Train Complex is dedicated to saving the stories of Orphan Train riders.

Two excellent novels center on Orphan Train riders: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty and Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline. 

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  1. Mary Maddox on January 28, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    What a fascinating account, Carol. So many stories. Most of us have such easy lives now, we have trouble conceiving the hardships people used to endure. During the Depression my grandparents had so little money they could barely afford to keep their children clothed. Fortunately they had a small farm that produced enough to feed them. I’ve seen the house where my grandparents raised seven children. The square footage is about the same as our living room, and we don’t have a large house. I try to remember my grandparents when I feel deprived without a walk-in closet.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 28, 2014 at 2:49 pm

      It is difficult to envision the hardships of the Depression and times before there were support systems we take for granted. That was one of the challenges of writing about life a century ago for my novel. The house my mother was raised in reminds me of your grandparents’ home. We have much to be grateful for.

  2. historywithatwist on January 28, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    They are remarkable stories, Carol. The trauma those children went through must have been huge. I had heard of these of the Orphan Train, but never realised that so many children had been relocated.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 28, 2014 at 2:56 pm

      Even Viola, who was placed with a loving family, lost not only her parents but also her sisters. So, yes, huge trauma. I know the organizers of the Orphan Trains believed they were doing the right thing. And in the absence of any other alternative but leaving the children on the streets, perhaps they were right. People who’ve tracked the riders (to the extent it’s possible), estimate that half the children landed in good homes and the other half had less than positive experiences.

  3. Shirley Hershey Showalter on January 28, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    This is a compelling story, full of potential for redemption, disillusionment, abuse, and all the other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I have a VHS movie called The Orphan Train. I showed it to a class one time long ago. Now I can’t remember the story very well. I see it’s on Youtube here:

    All best with your writing. Are you going to try for traditional publishing or indie publish?

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 28, 2014 at 4:52 pm

      Thanks for the link, Shirley. So many story possibilities with the Orphan Train children. It is a small, but important, moment in my novel. I’m indie publishing. Planning to launch mid-year.

  4. Stephen Crabbe on January 28, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    Fascinating, moving stories! Thank you again, Carol.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 28, 2014 at 9:25 pm

      Thanks, Stephen. The early 1900s was such an interesting time in our history.

  5. paulette mahurin on January 29, 2014 at 11:41 am

    The heartache of coming for “The Dream” and finding a nightmare of losing your family, and God knows what else. Can’t imagine what it was like for the children. Really gives me pause to be grateful for all I’ve grown up with and have. Thanks, Carol.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 29, 2014 at 1:14 pm

      We have so many reasons to be grateful, Paulette. Some are not pleased with our government support systems, but we’re sure better off than when there were none!

  6. Sharon Lippincott on February 5, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    A similar story opens the Spring volume of the new Women’s Memoirs series, SEASONS OF OUR LIVES. I found that story profoundly touching, and your additional ones fascinate me.

    I especially appreciate your comment “This was a generation that did not talk about private things.” The prevailing ethic in my family of origin was “that’s nobody’s business.” More than half a century later I’m still untying knots around what’s “anybody’s business.” Feelings were behind that fence for many of us too. During the Woodstock Era, those barriers seemed to tumble like the Berlin Wall.

    Overall, the experience of the Orphan Train children may metaphorically parallel that of children in legions of families today where long-term unemployment and other economic disasters have set in while food stamps and other relief measures are being cut back. At least most of them are able to remain in their families. Failure to live the American Dream seems to be an ongoing problem for too many.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 5, 2014 at 5:21 pm

      I, too, grew up in a family that didn’t talk about private things, Sharon. It’s a hard habit to break. Some of us became adept at sharing a lot without sharing anything important, which is another problem. Sharing at a meaningful level requires commitment, trust and a recognition that we’re all human.

      Though we have more of a support net for children and families these days, there are failures in this system, too. I guess we just keep trying to do better.

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