Imagine 30 to 50 children, ages ranging from infants to teenagers, on a train traveling with only one or two supervising adults.
Picture these children having no idea of where they’re going or what life lies ahead. The only certainty in their future was traveling west to a new home.
Many of those children had never been outside of New York City, and most all of them would never again have contact with relatives back east, if any were left alive.
When the orphan train movement began in the 1850s, it was estimated that 30,000 abandoned or orphaned children were living on New York City streets.
It has been estimated that 200,000 homeless children were placed across 47 states and Canada by the Orphan Train Movement between 1854 and 1929. It was the first ever documented foster care and adoption service in America.
According to immigration records, between 1841 and 1860, America welcomed more than 4.3 million newcomers. Steamship companies and railroad companies attracted immigrants to the America with slogans such as “the land of opportunity” and “land of a second chance.”
The goal was to bring laborers for the factories and homesteaders for the west. Often it caused a poor situation for families when housing became a problem. Port cities, like New York were overcrowded, thus housing and jobs were scarce.
In a new country without the extended family such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles to depend on in times of need, many families simply fell apart.
Children as young as 6 years old went to work to help support their families. Food was scarce and job conditions were dangerous, causing many deaths from accidents at sea and at factories.
This left women widows and children fatherless. Diseases from living in an unsanitary environment led to early deaths of mothers and fathers. Orphanages were built to care for children, though they quickly became overcrowded.
Parents who were still alive, though poor, were allowed to pay for the care of their children on a weekly or monthly basis. If the payments ceased, the child would become a ward of the court system, and social workers could then decide the child’s placement and welfare as they saw fit.
Children were taken in groups, under the supervision of at least one social worker agent, on trains to selected depots along the way. When the trains pulled into the stations, the caretaker agents would get the children cleaned up ready for inspection. Groups of children climbed down train car steps numerous times along their journey and lined up to walk to the meeting place. The meeting place was usually a baggage wagon on the train platform and sometimes it was the local church or a local opera house. Almost always, the children were up on a stage of some kind. This is how the term being “put up for adoption” began. Whatever children were left and not chosen, they were placed back on the train to travel to the next stop.
Agents planned routes and sent flyers to towns along the way, announcing their next arrival date. Screening committees were sometimes formed in towns where the children sought new homes. Populated towns along a railroad line, such as Olathe were prime stops for the Orphan Train. Screening committees were usually made up of a town doctors, clergyman, newspaper editors, store owners and teachers. The committees were responsible for asking and selecting possible parents and families for the children. During Sunday her sermons, clergymen would announce the next week’s arrival date of the orphan train and urge potential adoptive parents to be at the depot at the time of the train’s arrival to choose additions to their families.
Perhaps the saddest part of the process was when new parents could not take more than one child. If brothers and sisters were fortunate they were taken by the same family or by families in the same area so they could visit. Many times though, brothers or sisters would have to get back on the train without their siblings and go many miles further down the tracks. It was not uncommon for siblings to never see one another again.
After placement agents would check back in on the children for approval or disapproval upon adjusting to their new living situations. When the children arrived, a contract was signed between the Children’s Aid Society and the adoptive parents.
Families with farms were prime recipients of orphans, as they needed extra work hands on the farm. Many children were raised the same as the other children born into the families, though some were ostracized and treated differently.
Gardner brothers Larry and Keith Kessler’s mother Edith was an orphan brought by train to the west from New York in the early 1900s. Edith Beatty was born in 1900 and ended up in Missouri by the time she was 5 or 6 years old. A short time after this placement, an agent checked in and decided it was not an ideal situation and put Edith back on the train. When she got off at the Olathe depot to be “put up for adoption” again, the Deyo family from Bonita chose to take her into their home. The Deyo family had a dairy farm north of the town of Bonita, just south of Olathe.
Edith was raised as one of the Deyo’s own and attended school at the Lone Elm Schoolhouse. She married Russell Kessler in 1918. They had six children whom they raised in the Gardner area. Edith passed away from stomach cancer at the age of 43 at the Gardner Hospital on Elm Street. She died while some of her sons were already overseas and others were about to be shipped to serve their country during WWII.
Keith Kessler said, “We (brothers and sisters) never even knew our mother was an orphan on the train until learning about it after her death. It just never came up. The Deyos were grandma and grandpa, and we never knew any different.”
Keith Kessler and his children plan on visiting the National Orphan Train Museum in Concordia, Kan. in the future to see if they can research and learn more of his mother’s beginnings and birth in New York.
The number of Orphan Trains began to decline in the 1920s. Many factors contributed to their dissolution not the least of which were numerous state legislatures that passed laws during the 1920s restricting and forbidding the interstate placement of children.
Concordia, Kan. is home of the NOTC (National Orphan Train Complex). NOTC is a research facility and museum dedicated to “collect, preserve, interpret, and disseminate knowledge about the orphan trains, and the children and agents who rode them. The museum’s collections, exhibitions, programming and research will engage riders, researchers, and the general public and create an awareness of the Orphan Train Movement.”
For more information about the Orphan Train and the museum in Concordia, Kansas please visit,
Orphan trains placed 200,000 homeless children during 19th Century