leaving on an orphan train

I painted this from an image in my heart after watching the PBS American Experience documentary entitled, The Orphan Trains. The film, released in 1995, included interviews with actual orphans who recounted their experiences as orphans going to their new lives. At the time the documentary was filmed they were in their 80s and 90s.


THE ORPHAN TRAINS: In the mid-1800s, thousands of emigrants left Europe seeking opportunities in America. However, when they arrived they often found great hardship. Many died leaving single-parent families that were unable to support themselves. There were untold numbers of orphaned and abandoned children living on the city streets, turning to crime and prostitution to survive. Many were hung for the crime of stealing food. From 1854 to 1929 an estimated 200,000 children rode “orphan trains” from overpopulated areas of the East Coast to rural America to find new homes. 

When the orphan trains stopped at various stations along their way west, the children, each with a numbered tag attached to their clothing, were either paraded onto the train station platform or were taken to a public place for review and possible selection by people willing to take them in. The children who were not selected got back on the train for the next stop. Sadly, siblings were separated, never to be reunited. Due to the lack of oversight, documentation and regulation, it is impossible to know what happened to many of them. One can only imagine their fate. No doubt many found good homes while others perhaps not so fortunate.


Learn more

LISTEN to the Dry Branch Fire Squad vocal group sing The Orphan Train written by Utah Phillips. A special note: Utah Phillips didn't copyright the song as he believed it should be sung freely so people would learn about the Orphan Trains.

Leaving on an Orphan Train
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