During the early 1800s, the Industrial Revolution and mass
immigration led to overpopulation, worker exploitation and poverty in
U.S. cities such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
Families crowded into small, squalid tenements. Working
night and day, they earned barely enough to survive.
In these impoverished families, children were expected to work as hard as their relatives, and were often forced on the streets to sell, beg or steal. Illness was common, accidents frequent, and many children lost one or both of their parents. Other children were sent away from their homes when their families could no longer provide for them; and many chose to set out on their own to escape domestic abuse. These orphaned, homeless children became known as “street rats” and “street urchins.” Many of these children joined tough, criminal gangs for support and protection.
The public eventually became aware and concerned, and various philanthropies were founded to come to the children’s aid. Many of these charitable organizations believed that living conditions were simply too harsh in urban areas. So thousands of children were plucked off the streets and sent to the rural west to find new homes. These trains became known as “orphan trains,” and the children were called “orphan train riders.”
This Web site is dedicated to remembering their journeys and sharing their stories. Please feel free to use the resources you find here for educational purposes. It is our hope that this destination will help raise awareness about this unique movement in U.S. history.