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The True Story of an Orphan Train Rider

Emily looked around frantically. She couldn’t find her family anywhere. The church meeting they were attending was small, so they couldn’t have gone far. After some time, a fellow churchgoer approached Emily and said her family had already left. Why would they leave without her? She thought this foster family liked her. She slumped down behind a large oak tree, buried her face in her hands and sobbed.

A real crisis began to unfold on the streets in New York City in the late 1840s. The crisis involved children… and lots of them. Immigrants were pouring into New York City primarily from Germany and Ireland, and police estimated that 10,000 of them were boys and girls living on the street. In addition, the American Civil War had left many families without fathers to support them. In the years that followed, mothers were forced to give up their children, leaving an estimated 30,000 homeless children to wander the New York streets.

It was clear something needed to be done, and in 1853 city missionary Charles Brace started the Children’s Aid Society of New York City. For the next 75 years, this organization would transport nearly 250,000 orphans by train to the homes of farm families in western destinations.

“It may be argued that the real story of the orphan train era… is the individual children who made those journeys into places unknown–forever changing the landscape of America’s heartland.”

In 1906, a 13-year-old orphan named Emily (Reese) Kidder boarded a train in New York City bound for the Midwest with the hope of being adopted by a kind and loving family. Other orphans, ranging in age from one- to 13-years-old, were also on board. They became part of the largest migration of children in the history of the world known as the Orphan Train Movement.

Over the next five years, Emily would be placed with seven different foster homes in four states. With each new placement, she felt more like an indentured servant than a welcomed new member of the family; a feeling that would stay with her with each new home. Would Emily ever find happiness? Only time would tell.

Eventually, a change in attitudes toward the practice of placing out children, along with foster care and child labor laws, would bring the orphan train era to an end. These children, however, would forever become a part of America’s social history and folklore, and today historians believe there are nearly two million descendants of these orphan train riders.

Find out more about the history of the orphan trains and if Emily does indeed prevail in our upcoming Library program, Emily’s Story: The Brave Journey of an Orphan Train Rider, on Thursday, February 16 at 7 p.m. Please register in advance.


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