These were the riders of the orphan trains. They were poor children snatched from the streets of eastern cities by zealous charity workers who believed that poverty bred vice, and that the street urchins of one decade would be the thieves, murderers, and drunkards of the next. "Let society beware!" warned Charles Loring Brace, founder of New York's Children's Aid Society, the group that sent out the first trainloads of orphans. The seized children were assumed to be orphans, although some had parents or other relatives and a place to sleep at night. From 1854 through the first decades of the twentieth century, the Children's Aid Society and similar organizations placed sixty thousand or more city kids in rural households. No one knows the exact number, because the groups that did the placing kept a sloppy count, just as they did no checks on the families taking children in and rarely bothered to follow up on the boys and girls they placed.
Of all the children who have contributed to the great story that is the history of the United States, none have appealed to people's imaginations more than the riders of the orphan trains. It is intriguing to put ourselves in their position, to consider how they felt: Where were they going? What would happen to them? What was it like to stand on a station platform and watch others, more appealing, find new homes? But when it comes to history, what you or I or anyone else likes to imagine matters less than what really happened. Many children went to loving, nurturing families, but some became nothing more than unpaid servants or endured beatings or other abuse.
Such a loose, unregulated arrangement couldn't last. State laws restricting the placement of children, the emergence of social work as a profession, and the growth of foster care gradually halted the orphan trains. Today we try to help parents as well as children when a family has problems, and to keep children in their own homes, if possible. Poverty is no longer a good reason to break up a family. Trained professionals conduct background checks on foster families and monitor the children's progress, but the system is far from perfect. If there is a good solution for the children who depend on society for care, I think we haven't found it yet.
My grandfather never voiced an opinion on the orphan-train riders, at least that I ever heard. It was his daughter, my mother, who later editorialized. She said, "Everyone goes through a tough time in life, and it's better to have it happen when you are young, because you get it over with." In her roundabout way, she said something wise, that living through rough experiences early on equips us for life's later challenges. This is often true, but if the hardships are too great, they can stunt and scar rather than nourish the soul. I don't believe that what doesn't kill us necessarily makes us stronger.