Thursday, December 15, 2016

Riding the Rails: Jennifer Bohnhoff on America's Orphan Trains

It's a shame that few Americans seem to know about America's Orphan Trains, because the story is both interesting and deeply disturbing.

Between 1854 and 1929, over 200,000 children, mostly from the slums of large cities on America's eastern seaboard, were loaded into trains and sent west. Many of these children were orphans with no known relatives to take custody of  them. Others came from impoverished families that had no way of caring for them. These families believed and hoped that their children had a better chance at a rich and fulfilling life if they followed Horace Greeley's admonition "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country." Still other children had run away from abusive or neglectful families and made the choice to ride the trains themselves. 

The orphan trains began because a Methodist minister named Charles Loring Brace sought to find a way to help vagrant children living in the streets of New York City. At the time, an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 children (out of a total NYC population of 500,000!) lived in substandard conditions. No social programs, welfare programs or foster care were in place to assist them. Believing that these children would fare better if they were raised in the wholesome atmosphere of farms, Brace created the Children's Aid Society. Later, other organizations also created programs to get indigent or needy children out of the cities and into the country. Here are some books if you would like to pursue this topic further:

Orphan Train Rider: One Boy's True Story, by Andrea Warren tells the story of Lee Nailling and his brothers, who were placed in an orphanage when their mother died. Two years later, they traveled to Texas on an orphan train and were split up. Lee ended up moving from home to home, until he was finally placed in a loving family who allowed him to keep in touch with his brothers.

We Rode the Orphan Trains, also by Andrea Warren,  is a compilation of interviews with the other riders that the author made while writing Lee Nailling's story. Both books are nonfiction and would be good background material for the following novels on the same subject:

A Family Apart is the first novel in a four-part series by the very popular author Joan Lowery Nixon. It is well researched and a very quick and easy read for middle grade students.

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, alternates between the Great Depression when the character Vivian Daly, a recent Irish immigrant, was put on an orphan and sent to Minnesota, and the present, when she is an old woman living in Maine. When 17-year-old Molly Ayer.
Molly, a Penobscot Indian who has spent her life being shuffled between foster homes is sent to help the elderly woman clean her attic as part of her community service, the pair form a a deep bond that helps Vivian overcome her lifelong sense of shame.

12-year-old Rodzina Clara Jadwiga Anastazya Brodski is the main character in Karen Cushman's Rodzina, a novel set in 1881 and about a Polish immigrant girl who is put on an orphan train in Chicago. This novel has the wildest and most exciting plot of all the books listed here. It's far fetched, but good fun, and might just interest middle grade readers enough to make them research the Orphan Trains further. 

Jennifer Bohnhoff teaches middle school social studies in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is the author of four books for middle school readers. You can learn more about her and her writing at her website.


  1. Another MG historical fiction about the Orphan Train, but focusing on the family taking in an orphan, is Worth by A. Lafaye.

    Deb Watley

  2. All this is news to me! It isn't only children who need to be educated about the recent past in North America. I've printed out the titles and authors, also 'Worth' so I can search for these books.