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Orphan Trains …

Orphan Trains

Orphan Trains are no longer mentioned in our History books.  As with many other events, they are no longer of importance except to the people who lived through the ordeal.   The paradigm gained enough support to garner the organization that it took to engage the train, plan the trip, board the children and embark. The school of thought has now changed enough to make Orphan Trains as abhorrent as not allowing children to become attached to the caretaker in foster homes and child abuse.  I am glad that the paradigm has changed but I still wonder why so little has been written about the Orphan Trains.

During the Great Depression many children were deserted; either from the death of one or both parents or from abandonment by parents unable to provide the simple necessities of life.  Major metropolitan cities solved the problem of providing for these orphans by putting them on trains and sending them to more rural areas in the hopes that someone would take one or more of them into their homes to work for their room and board.  My father often told of going with his older brother to the railroad station and watching as the youngsters were taken off the train, paraded before the audience and offered to anyone who wanted one.  He went on to tell that one of the children, a girl, was taken in by a neighbor and one, a boy, was given to a farmer and his wife.  The girl worked hard but was treated fairly; she grew up, married and has raised her family in her adopted community.  The boy, however, did not fair as well.  He was abused, overworked and when he could take no more, he ran away.  My Dad always wondered where he was and what happened to him.

I have always read the little written about Orphan Trains with great interest, and I can remember in about 4th grade reading a paragraph about the trains going West to places like ST Louis and Topeka.  I came home and asked my Dad why they didn’t mention Vermont and he thought it was because Vermont was such a small state, not many came here.  As I grew older, I have pondered what school of thought would consider putting children on a train bound for the unknown and consider it a humane thing to do.  What were the children told and how did they cope with the reality?  The paradigm that stated that Orphan Trains were in the best interest of the child flies in the face of all that I later learned about the child psychology.    Perhaps the reason that little is written about this event on our history is that it was a knee-jerk reaction to a bad situation that in retrospect should never happened.

Most people have never heard of Orphan Trains and those that have did not realize that they ever came to Vermont.  It is a little known part of history that has always fascinated me.  There is a man in St Louis who is trying to gather enough information to write a book about the event.  I hope that he succeeds.

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4 responses to “Orphan Trains …

  1. We watched a PBS show on orphan trains sometime within the last year. And on a visit to the Train Museum in Sacramento, we saw several books on the topic. I knew about it b/c I stumbled across documents in some archive somewhere when I was working on my dissertation. Yet another embarrassing and sad part of U.S. hisory. 😦

  2. There is a lot of mention of the Orphan Trains in genealogy circles….and another group of children are the Home Children….they were transported to the US from England and placed in the same type of situation as the orphan children. If a child had siblings sometimes they were placed together, if not in the same home at least in the same town. It was definitely a sad situation for many children. Families had too many children a parent would die, and the youngest children would be left at the local orphanage. There is a series of, I think, three books and I forget the author, but they are about the Orphan Trains going west and the fear the children had not knowing what they faced.

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