everyone has heard stories of how women once traveled west as "mail-order
The men along the frontier were desperate for wives, and Civil war
casualties left an abundance of single women back east.
Not always the best alternative, but for some it seemed to be the
only alternative for a future, and thousands probably made the trip.
Not as well-known but just as significant was the story of the "Harvey
When Fred Harvey
started hiring young women to work in his famous restaurants along
the Santa Fe Railway, thousands flocked to the interviews, ended
up working out west and most eventually married a westerner and
raised their families on the frontier.
lesser-known story just as successful was carried out when orphans
in the eastern cities, especially New York City, were collected,
outfitted and sent out west to be adopted among new families and
This longtime project is known as "The Orphan Trains."
In the 1850s, New York City already had its quota of poor people
with many homeless children living off the streets.
When masses of foreign emigrants began pouring through Ellis Island
only to find few jobs available and their resources too meager for
traveling west, the numbers of homeless and near helpless ballooned
One answer was to form The Children's Aid Society of New York City
Financed by wealthy residents of the city, a shelter was found providing
food, lodging and industrial schooling, teaching a simple trade
to the young residents.
This effort was soon overwhelmed and in debt. Something different
had to be done.
formed an Emigration Department and began experimenting with placing
orphans with rural families in need of extra help.
One man was hired to travel to any community applying for orphans
to see and study the conditions and judge if they were fit to receive
After the program
became known, the Society's New York offices were busy with prospective
parents visiting and hoping to adopt there in New York City.
was so successful that by 1857, the Society was placing an average
of 1,000 orphans per year, mostly in outlying rural areas.
their operation out west by 1875, placements of children on the
frontiers reached 4,000 per year.
Using the railroads,
the Orphan Trains carried the children to every community that complied
with the requirements.
The job was not easy. Every child found in the city was abandoned,
homeless, dirty and poorly dressed.
Most were surviving
by stealing, begging or working menial jobs.
Many worked in sweat shops for pennies per day.
Society learned quickly these survivors were smart and highly adaptable;
otherwise, they could not have survived this long.
Once fed, bathed
and properly dressed, they became excited at the prospect of a new
home and family.
They already knew hard times and hard work and had been disappointed
many times before, so what ever came up they were prepared.
By 1929, after 75 years of operation, more than 150,000 orphans
had been placed out on the farms and in the cities of the West and
the last Orphan Train ended its historic journey.
© Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" January
8, 2008 Column
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