Between 1854 and 1929 more than 200,000 children rode "orphan trains" from Eastern cities to the Midwest and West to be placed in foster homes. The Children's Aid Society in New York City initiated the program in an attempt to provide wholesome homes for orphaned children who might otherwise face a life of poverty and crime. In fact, many of these children were not orphans at all, but had parents who were unable to care for them.
Some orphan train riders found loving families and were adopted; others were regarded as cheap labor and worked long hours at home or in the fields. Changing attitudes toward keeping families together, new state and local laws funding foster care and prohibiting out-of-state placement, and child labor legislation brought about the end of the orphan trains in 1929.
To preserve and document the history of orphan train riders, Mary Ellen Johnson founded the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America in 1986. The society sponsors reunions and publications, offers a website, and maintains a research center in Springdale, Arkansas.
Harper's New Monthly Magazine, August 1873, praised the "placing-out system" of the Children's Aid Society in New York as "an ingenious effort for the benefit of the destitute children of the city."
This ad appeared in the Tecumseh Chieftain, July 8, 1893. Many different child-welfare organizations placed out children in foster homes across the Midwest. An estimated six to seven thousand youngsters rode orphan trains to Nebraska.
Nemaha County Herald, February 5, 1915
In 1962 Nebraska Orphan Train Riders held their first annual reunion in Grand Island. Two nuns and a priest from the New York Foundling Hospital attended. In 1875 the New York Foundling Hospital began placing out orphans to the Midwest. Unlike the Children's Aid Society, the Foundling Hospital assigned children to specific homes before they left New York.
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Toni Weiler shortly after she arrived in McCook in 1913
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Albert Sommer wore these socks on the train ride from New York to Nebraska in 1912.
NSHS Museum 11534-1
The Panzer Brothers posed for a photo in Nebraska in 1930
Nebraska History Museum