The train out of New York City full of nuns and children pulled up to the Osage, Missouri station in 1901. Three year old Irma Craig had her name, birth date, and name of who was to receive her sewn on the inside of her jacket and a large number 32 sewn on the outside. As the train came to a stop little Irma could see a lady holding a large card with 32 written on it. Irma exclaimed, ” “That’s my new Momma,” and was soon rushing to meet Mrs. Katherine Boehm.Irma’s long journey began when her birth mother, Lyda, left Irma at the New York Foundling Hospital when she was only a few months old. The Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul had raised her for three years. The Sisters sorted out and matched each child on this train to new homes before they boarded the train. But for many of the other 200,000 orphan train riders from 1853 to 1930 the experience included being selected (or not) during a review done by total strangers on a string of several railroad station platforms.
Social policy of the time said orphans or neglected children were better off doing chores on a pioneer’s farm than they would be on the streets of crowded slums. For most the new life worked out well, but for others it was a bad experience. Less than one in ten riders was returned. Whether a foundling, or a teenager separated from a neglectful alcoholic single-parent, each orphan train rider’s fate was strongly influenced by what happened in a few moments on a far away railroad platform.
About one in twenty-five Americans has an orphan train rider connection. Two organizations were responsible for more than half the orphan trains: the Children’s Aid Society, and the New York Foundling Hospital. However, dozens of organizations mostly in New York City, but also a few in Boston, Chicago, or Minnesota contributed children to the orphan train movement which “placed out” children in 48 states. Sometimes these sending institutions have records which show the names of the birth parents.
To learn about orphan train and adoption research try these Research Wiki articles: