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  Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Orphans find homes in West

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

Most everyone has heard stories of how women once traveled west as "mail-order brides."

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 Girls."

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.

A 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 homes.

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 into crisis.

One answer was to form The Children's Aid Society of New York City in 1853.

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.

The Society 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 the children.

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.

The program was so successful that by 1857, the Society was placing an average of 1,000 orphans per year, mostly in outlying rural areas.

After expanding 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.

However, the 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
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.

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