I find interesting 19th-century-related tidbits everywhere I go.  Tonight at a bluegrass concert (of all places!), I heard a song called “The Orphan Train (Take Us In)” by U. Utah Phillips.  The band told the story behind the song, and it goes a little something like this.

In the 1840’s, ’50’s, and ’60’s, the U.S. saw an explosion in immigration from Europe.  Port cities on the East Coast, particularly New York and Boston, were overcrowded, and many immigrants lived in dismal conditions.  During this time, the number of orphans in these cities also grew dramatically.  In 1854, there were estimated to be as many as 30,000 orphans in New York City.  These children, whose parents had either died or turned them out due to an inability to support them, were forced to live in the streets working as paper boys, shoe-shiners, or in factories under dangerous and oppressive conditions.

In 1853, Charles Brace formed the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) to help these abandoned children.  They started a program that is considered to be the first large-scale foster home program; orphans were taken from major East Coast cities by train to families out west who wanted to adopt them.  The families were screened in advance, and the Society required either the foster family or the child to keep in contact with the organization at least once a year to make sure things were working out.  If the family was unable to keep the child for whatever reason, the Society would take the child back at no expense to the foster family.

The trains became known as orphan trains.  There is an Orphan Train Museum in Concordia, Kansas whose website claims that one in every 25 Americans is related to an orphan train rider.  And now I finally get the opening scene of Toy Story 3 where Andy and Jessie are riding along side a runaway train full of troll dolls and Andy shouts out, “The orphans!”

Here are the lyrics to the song.

Once I had a darling mother, though I can't recall her name
I had a baby brother who I'll never see again
For the Children's Home is sending us out on the Orphan Train
To try to find someone to take us in

cho: Take us in, we have rode the Orphan Train
     Take us in, we need a home, we need a name
     Take us in, oh won't you be our kin
     We are looking for someone to take us in

I have stolen from the poorbox, I've begged the city streets
I've swabbed the bars and poolrooms for a little bite to eat
In my daddy's old green jacket and these rags upon my feet
I've been looking for someone to take me in

The Children's Home they gathered us, me and all the rest
They taught us to sit quietly until the food was blest
Then they put us on the Orphan Train and sent us way out West
To try to find someone to take us in.

The farmers and their families they came from miles around
We lined up on the platform of the station in each town
And one by one we parted like some living lost-and-found
And one by one we all were taken in

Now there's many a fine doctor or a teacher in your school
There's many a good preacher who can teach the Golden Rule
Who started out an orphan sleeping in the freezing rain
Whose life began out on the Orphan Train.