Beginning in 1853, the Orphan Trains ran from major cities on the East coast of the United States to various communities westward. Most of the trains final destinations were in the Midwest or pioneer communities that were growing at the time of the early trains. More than 200,000 children were placed in new homes through this predecessor to our current foster care system. The Children’s Aid Society based in New York City and later the New York Foundling Hospital were a major source of the children but there were also other organizations involved at various points.
The children that were placed on the trains were often homeless or abandoned. Some were relinquished by impoverished parents or removed from abusive homes. They were mostly placed in rural communities and on farms. While some stories reveal abuse and neglect at the hands of the foster families, many children were given placements with loving and caring parents that were able to provide a life that would have never been possible in the slums of the major cities from which they came.
The children headed west on passenger trains accompanied by usually two adults who then met with the person in charge of placements at each stop along the route. The adults interested in taking in a child would meet the group at a designated place and select a child then.
There are various first hand accounts written by the children that discuss this process and the life that came afterwards.
The Orphan Trains continued until 1929 (some records say the early 1930s) but ended due to the development of modern foster care, the Great Depression, and the enactment of laws in various states that forbid the bringing in of orphans from out-of-state.
Today, researchers believe that there are more than two million descendents of the train riders. There are various historical societies that preserve the records and memories of local riders.
To learn more, you can check out these resources among many others:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/orphan/ – American Experience: Orphan Trains on PBS.org is a fantastic documentary to introduce the stories of the train children
http://orphantraindepot.org/history/ – introductory information and links to various other historical sites about the Orphan Trains
Historical fiction: A Family Apart by Lois Lowry is a great tween/young adult introduction to the story and Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is a great introduction for young adults and adults alike
If you find other resources, please share here.