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Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed

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In mid-nineteenth-century New York, vagrant youth, both orphans and runaways, filled the streets. For years the city had been sweeping these children into prisons or almshouses, but in 1853 the young minister Charles Loring Brace proposed a radical solution to the problem by creating the Children's Aid Society, an organization that fought to provide homeless children with In mid-nineteenth-century New York, vagrant youth, both orphans and runaways, filled the streets. For years the city had been sweeping these children into prisons or almshouses, but in 1853 the young minister Charles Loring Brace proposed a radical solution to the problem by creating the Children's Aid Society, an organization that fought to provide homeless children with shelter, education, and, for many, a new family in the country. Combining a biography of Brace with firsthand accounts of orphans, Stephen O'Connor here tells of the orphan trains that, between 1854 and 1929, spirited away some 250,000 destitute children to rural homes in every one of the forty-eight contiguous states. A powerful blend of history, biography, and adventure, Orphans Trains remains the definitive work on this little-known episode in American history.


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In mid-nineteenth-century New York, vagrant youth, both orphans and runaways, filled the streets. For years the city had been sweeping these children into prisons or almshouses, but in 1853 the young minister Charles Loring Brace proposed a radical solution to the problem by creating the Children's Aid Society, an organization that fought to provide homeless children with In mid-nineteenth-century New York, vagrant youth, both orphans and runaways, filled the streets. For years the city had been sweeping these children into prisons or almshouses, but in 1853 the young minister Charles Loring Brace proposed a radical solution to the problem by creating the Children's Aid Society, an organization that fought to provide homeless children with shelter, education, and, for many, a new family in the country. Combining a biography of Brace with firsthand accounts of orphans, Stephen O'Connor here tells of the orphan trains that, between 1854 and 1929, spirited away some 250,000 destitute children to rural homes in every one of the forty-eight contiguous states. A powerful blend of history, biography, and adventure, Orphans Trains remains the definitive work on this little-known episode in American history.

30 review for Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed

  1. 5 out of 5

    John Wood

    Sending orphans on trains and leaving them with total strangers with little vetting or followup sounds horrible judging by modern standards. Charles Loring Brace was considered a visionary by many people as the founder of the CAS (Children's Aid Society). Around 250,000 children were processed between 1854 and 1929. They traveled from New York City to many destinations. I decided to read a book about these trains after going to a presentation, at the library, about orphan trains that delivered t Sending orphans on trains and leaving them with total strangers with little vetting or followup sounds horrible judging by modern standards. Charles Loring Brace was considered a visionary by many people as the founder of the CAS (Children's Aid Society). Around 250,000 children were processed between 1854 and 1929. They traveled from New York City to many destinations. I decided to read a book about these trains after going to a presentation, at the library, about orphan trains that delivered their "cargo" to Michigan. Unfortunately, since the record keeping and followup was shoddy at best, it is impossible to determine the overall success or failure of this effort. There are many accounts of incredible success stories and of children who suffered terrible abuse. The rampant problems of children abandoned on the streets of New York City including those in the desperately poor Five Points neighborhood compelled the CAS to act. This book gives us a good understanding of the morals and ethics of the times, the conditions the children endured, several examples of these riders, the life of Charles Loring Brace and the history of the orphan trains.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jodi

    This book alternated between so sloooow and really interesting. Which is why it took so long for me to read it! I also found O'Connor's ambivalence somewhat amusing. He never really could decide whether he admired Charles Brace or found him stupid and naive. I came away admiring Brace. He may have had many missteps along the way, but at least he did SOMETHING. It annoys me when people attack someone for their actions when they themselves do nothing to help society. I also came away admiring my s This book alternated between so sloooow and really interesting. Which is why it took so long for me to read it! I also found O'Connor's ambivalence somewhat amusing. He never really could decide whether he admired Charles Brace or found him stupid and naive. I came away admiring Brace. He may have had many missteps along the way, but at least he did SOMETHING. It annoys me when people attack someone for their actions when they themselves do nothing to help society. I also came away admiring my sister who cares for a foster child more than ever and wanting to help the orphans of our day somehow. O'Conner's last chapter discussed the foster care system of our day and it was terribly sad, but at the same time, I'm glad he added it. Now who's being ambivalent? :-)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nick Duretta

    Although it could have been more tightly written and better focused, this account of a man's quest to improve the lot of impoverished children in the mid-1800s by transporting them across the country to (presumably) improved circumstances sheds light on an important link between the grim child-rearing environment of the early 19th century to the more enlightened (yet still flawed) foster care system of the present day. Although it could have been more tightly written and better focused, this account of a man's quest to improve the lot of impoverished children in the mid-1800s by transporting them across the country to (presumably) improved circumstances sheds light on an important link between the grim child-rearing environment of the early 19th century to the more enlightened (yet still flawed) foster care system of the present day.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Barbara Bresnahan

    Informative and interesting despite being a little dry and laggy in some parts.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Donna Davis

    I received this title awhile back as part of a book club deal. Try though I might, I couldn't make my way through it start to finish, even though I am fairly sure I was acquainted with one of the train's (former) children, a man that became a renowned veterinarian as an adult. I recommend it as reference material, and for adults only. This is not--and doesn't pretend to be--a heartwarming tale for little folks. There's some crushing material here. The research is good, but it's not easy reading. I received this title awhile back as part of a book club deal. Try though I might, I couldn't make my way through it start to finish, even though I am fairly sure I was acquainted with one of the train's (former) children, a man that became a renowned veterinarian as an adult. I recommend it as reference material, and for adults only. This is not--and doesn't pretend to be--a heartwarming tale for little folks. There's some crushing material here. The research is good, but it's not easy reading. There are two challenges in tackling this book. Part of it is so horrifyingly sad that most of us will only be able to face it in small bites. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it; I do this from time to time and to good result. But unless you are possessed of the evenest of dispositions, I recommend alternating it with something lighter. The other challenge is that the parts that aren't soul-crushingly sad are surprisingly dry. If there are any genuinely happy parts, I have yet to find them. For researchers and students in relevant fields, I recommend it, as well as for those that like to have a good collection ready to hand.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Randy Fay

    This is titled to be trendy "Orphan Trains", but you'll be disappointed if you read it for the orphan trains. You'll even be disappointed if you read it as a biography of Charles Loring Brace. It's really a review of social work toward youth from 1850-1930 (and a quick catch-up at the end to the present). It is amazing as a history of social work. The assumption in 1853 that you could just evacuate homeless children to the magical west and all would be fine is just amazing, but not many people o This is titled to be trendy "Orphan Trains", but you'll be disappointed if you read it for the orphan trains. You'll even be disappointed if you read it as a biography of Charles Loring Brace. It's really a review of social work toward youth from 1850-1930 (and a quick catch-up at the end to the present). It is amazing as a history of social work. The assumption in 1853 that you could just evacuate homeless children to the magical west and all would be fine is just amazing, but not many people objected. But by 1910, people were thinking much more critically about family preservation and (in the foster-care system) about safe foster families. This was probably an academic thesis updated for publication. It definitely has some rough sections, including taking wild detours to do the biography of the former governor of Alaska and of a single orphan-train rider who committed murder. Neither of those had much to do with the topic. Overall I was really glad I read it. And it made me optimistic about our world. Because in 1853 we had no strategy at all for homeless children/orphans, and over 50-60 years many organizations banded together to push the standard of care much, much higher. We still have lots of difficult problems, but the idea that we could make that much progress in 60 years is very uplifting.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mallika

    This book is essential reading for anybody studying or wanting to learn about America in the early 19th century. It effectively portrays the beginnings of social work and the foster system, placing both in their fascinating historical and cultural context. A vivid and well-researched read by a top historian.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Diane Secchiaroli

    Foster care This is a look of foster care from it’s initial founding in the 19th century to today in New York City. It should be required reading for all Social Services personnel. Unfortunately the care of children is still not adequate to the needs.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Travis

    Interesting subject matter but not that interesting a book.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Beth

    Very dry. Reads like a textbook. Ok boo. It's informative but reads like a textbook and really is about evolving help for foster children over 130 years. Very dry. Reads like a textbook. Ok boo. It's informative but reads like a textbook and really is about evolving help for foster children over 130 years.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Diane

    Interesting information. Reads like a history textbook. Learned the beginnings of the modern Children and Youth services.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    This was a very interesting look into the beginnings of what later became the foster system. It was a different time and it's hard not to judge it from our current worldview. However I think Charles Brace really cared and started a revolutionary process to help kids and save them from the prisons. When you realize the orphans on the street, if caught, would end up in prisons along with adults his system seems much more humane. Initially people thought kids from bad backgrounds were inherently ba This was a very interesting look into the beginnings of what later became the foster system. It was a different time and it's hard not to judge it from our current worldview. However I think Charles Brace really cared and started a revolutionary process to help kids and save them from the prisons. When you realize the orphans on the street, if caught, would end up in prisons along with adults his system seems much more humane. Initially people thought kids from bad backgrounds were inherently bad. Well he played on the beginnings of Victorian sentiment that children were good and malleable. If the kids were raised in 'good' homes they'd turn out good. Also he played on society's fears of these emerging slums and violence that if kids were 'saved' this would lesson the problem. Some of the downsides: Some kids who went on the trains weren't orphans and there weren't very good records kept. However this wasn't probably considered a huge deal at the time. Sadly some kids were taken right off the street with little attempt to find out if they did have parents. In his mind the parents were incorrigible and the kids didn't have a chance with them. Thus there are some sad stories along with the good ones. Some families sent a child away because they hoped they'd have a better chance elsewhere. Some kids did really well and some stayed with their employers/new families and others moved on. There are sweet stories were kids were even basically adopted. Obviously with very poor records some fared worse then others. However the basic premise to help these kids get an education, a home and a basic start in life so they wouldn't end up in the slums and prisons, was a noble one in my opinion. It's not a simple read. Some biographies/histories flow much better than this one but it's not one that's frustrating and hopelessly convoluted either. I read it at nights before I went to sleep for a few weeks and found it very interesting but not too spell binding that I couldn't put it down and go to sleep on time.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    Orphan Trains tells three stories: 1) the story of the "orphans" (not all were actually orphans) shipped from New York to the western United States as foster children; 2) a biography of the founder of the organization that rounded the orphans up and put them on the trains; and 3) the place of the orphan trains in the history of child welfare in the United States. The chapters telling the stories of the specific orphans were compelling and were the most interesting parts of the book. The least in Orphan Trains tells three stories: 1) the story of the "orphans" (not all were actually orphans) shipped from New York to the western United States as foster children; 2) a biography of the founder of the organization that rounded the orphans up and put them on the trains; and 3) the place of the orphan trains in the history of child welfare in the United States. The chapters telling the stories of the specific orphans were compelling and were the most interesting parts of the book. The least interesting, for me at least, was Charles Loring Brace. His story was told in great detail, including letters, European tours and so on, but he is the most un-interesting man I've ever read about. Aside from the single fact of his founding the Orphan Trains, he was absolutely typical of that generation of educated Americans and, as far as I can tell, was an absolutely tedious bore. Two things weakened the book further for me: First, the research was almost entirely from secondary sources, ie, drawn from other biographies or books written on the subject. Second, the writing style, perhaps influenced by the primary sources, tended to mimic the florid style of the 19th century. Here's an extreme case of what I'm talking about, in which we're told that Brace enjoys fishing.... "One of Charles's favorite activities as a child was to go on solitary expeditions with his father (sic) to mountain streams, where, sitting on a road rock or grassy bank,under the shifting shade of beeches, oaks, and larches, they would bait hooks, watch the glint of sunlight on the rushing water, and wait until they saw the line go stiff and felt the tug of a silvery life's determination to endure".

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    This book covers a fascinating subject, the origins of the 19th Century child-welfare movement, as enacted through orphan train "emigration" of impoverished children, out of the slums of New York to live with families in Midwestern and Western states - often as quasi-indentured servants. It also treats extensively the life of the man who founded the movement, Charles Loring Brace. Unfortunately, the author takes what starts out as an interesting read about a relatively obscure 19th century figur This book covers a fascinating subject, the origins of the 19th Century child-welfare movement, as enacted through orphan train "emigration" of impoverished children, out of the slums of New York to live with families in Midwestern and Western states - often as quasi-indentured servants. It also treats extensively the life of the man who founded the movement, Charles Loring Brace. Unfortunately, the author takes what starts out as an interesting read about a relatively obscure 19th century figure, and renders it into a meandering, overlong biography/US child-welfare history, which ends with a screed about contemporary child foster care practices. This last seems glaringly out of context, and does not connect well with the subjects of the first 9/10ths of the book. O'Connor tags on a quote from Brace's great friend, Fred Olmstead, at the end: "There's a great work wants doing in this our generation ..." which seems intended to try to wrap O'Connor's condemnation of foster care into something that perhaps Brace might endorse. But this faux endorsement rings hollow, given Olmstead's reported lack of engagement with Brace's work around child welfare, as well as Brace's own attitudes toward poverty and poor children, as delineated so well in the first part of the book. O'Connor obviously did a ton of research about his subjects, which is exceptional for a popular work of this kind. The book's overall lack of focus is frustrating, but if you have the patience to wade through academic-style writing with lots of footnotes, as well as an appetite for extended, tangential accounts of orphans gone astray into lives of desperation and crime (or, alternatively, political and financial success), you might enjoy this book.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Writer's Relief

    In the first half of the 19th century, immigrants flooded our eastern shores. The population of New York City went from 33,000 in 1790 to more than 500,000; by 1890 it was close to 1.5 million. And it was estimated that more than 3,000 homeless children were wandering the streets. In an effort to correct this situation and clean up the most wretched areas like Five Points, the city created the Children’s Aid Society. This historic novel relates how one man, Charles Loring Brace, helped create an In the first half of the 19th century, immigrants flooded our eastern shores. The population of New York City went from 33,000 in 1790 to more than 500,000; by 1890 it was close to 1.5 million. And it was estimated that more than 3,000 homeless children were wandering the streets. In an effort to correct this situation and clean up the most wretched areas like Five Points, the city created the Children’s Aid Society. This historic novel relates how one man, Charles Loring Brace, helped create and organize the transportation of tens of thousands of impoverished, abandoned children, distributing them across the entire country. His idealized program was supposed to assist the children in becoming productive members of society. The problem with his plan was little or no follow-up on the placements and abysmal record keeping. O’Connor provides insight into how and why so many children were homeless. He explains how the culture of that era drove the efforts to create this questionable practice, and why it was generally accepted by the public. If you enjoy reading about history, ORPHAN TRAINS is a great look-back into a little-known chapter of our early days.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Gayle

    Stephen O'Connor's book "Orphan Trains - The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed" is a very detailed account of the earliest child welfare programs in the U.S. Charles Loring Brace was at the heart of the movement to improve the lives of the orphaned and abandoned children of N.Y. He founded the very well-known Children's Aid Society and was among the first to send out "orphan trains" to the West (Michigan, Texas, Minnesota). The CAS placed approximately 105,000 ch Stephen O'Connor's book "Orphan Trains - The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed" is a very detailed account of the earliest child welfare programs in the U.S. Charles Loring Brace was at the heart of the movement to improve the lives of the orphaned and abandoned children of N.Y. He founded the very well-known Children's Aid Society and was among the first to send out "orphan trains" to the West (Michigan, Texas, Minnesota). The CAS placed approximately 105,000 children between 1853 and the early 1930's. The estimate of the total number of placed children by all organizations was approximately 250,000. (The numbers astound me.) The book includes some firsthand accounts of the orphan train children - some wrote of successes, while others wrote of the extreme challenges they faced. Through the years there have been so many reforms, yet the programs still don't run as they are supposed to, and the outlook, according to this book is very bleak.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mary Ellen

    Well researched, but hamstrung by the author’s inability to overcome his own bias. Most students will recognize this type of analysis, where the conclusion is written first, and then historical detail is molded to fit around it. Largely because most students have written this exact kind of analysis at three in the morning on the day the paper is due. Myself included. It may be enough to get you a passing grade, but not much more than that. And this book doesn’t get much more than that either. C- Well researched, but hamstrung by the author’s inability to overcome his own bias. Most students will recognize this type of analysis, where the conclusion is written first, and then historical detail is molded to fit around it. Largely because most students have written this exact kind of analysis at three in the morning on the day the paper is due. Myself included. It may be enough to get you a passing grade, but not much more than that. And this book doesn’t get much more than that either. C- Fewer wandering tangents, more opposing views, and a heavier editorial hand would have made a world of difference.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Josette

    The book was very interesting and I learned a great deal about the Children's Aid Society and how it help some children but also neglected their individual needs at the same time. Charles Loring Brace paved the way for new systems of helping children and eventually their families in times of need. However, there is still much work that is needed to improve the child welfare systems and help improve the lives of children who suffer at the hands of their abusers. This task however, is not one that The book was very interesting and I learned a great deal about the Children's Aid Society and how it help some children but also neglected their individual needs at the same time. Charles Loring Brace paved the way for new systems of helping children and eventually their families in times of need. However, there is still much work that is needed to improve the child welfare systems and help improve the lives of children who suffer at the hands of their abusers. This task however, is not one that can easily be solved.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Nathan

    You'd think a story about orphans and foster care reform would have been more compelling. From the outset, O'Connor remains awkwardly detached from his subject, preferring instead to bombard us with statistics and dry social reportage. The bulk of this book is deadly boring. Then, at its greatest unbearability, just when you can't stand the droning tedium any more, O'Connor launches into an ill-timed plea for reform of the system he has so blunderingly described. The point is well-taken, but so, You'd think a story about orphans and foster care reform would have been more compelling. From the outset, O'Connor remains awkwardly detached from his subject, preferring instead to bombard us with statistics and dry social reportage. The bulk of this book is deadly boring. Then, at its greatest unbearability, just when you can't stand the droning tedium any more, O'Connor launches into an ill-timed plea for reform of the system he has so blunderingly described. The point is well-taken, but so, so horribly made.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Thorn MotherIssues

    Excellent history of the Children's Aid Society and the evolution of (and rationale for) the orphan trains. I was particularly interested, though, in the last chapter where O'Connor analyzes strengths and weaknesses in current foster care theory and practice, putting them in the historic context of previous American child protective practices. A lot of history, a lot of insight. I very much enjoyed it. Excellent history of the Children's Aid Society and the evolution of (and rationale for) the orphan trains. I was particularly interested, though, in the last chapter where O'Connor analyzes strengths and weaknesses in current foster care theory and practice, putting them in the historic context of previous American child protective practices. A lot of history, a lot of insight. I very much enjoyed it.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kathy

    This is a non-fictional account of the work of Charles Loring Brace and the development of the the Children's Aid Society in NYC during the mid-nineteenth century. Included are some firsthand accounts of orphans who rode the trains. Orphan train history is a significant slice of American history, a multi-layered series of events that is chronicled from 1854 to 1929 and impacting the lives of some 250,000 destitute children. This work by Stephen O'Connor is particularly insightful and readable. This is a non-fictional account of the work of Charles Loring Brace and the development of the the Children's Aid Society in NYC during the mid-nineteenth century. Included are some firsthand accounts of orphans who rode the trains. Orphan train history is a significant slice of American history, a multi-layered series of events that is chronicled from 1854 to 1929 and impacting the lives of some 250,000 destitute children. This work by Stephen O'Connor is particularly insightful and readable.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Roger Rohweder

    My grandfather was shipped west on an Orphan Train, and I wanted to get a non-fiction understanding of what that the whole thing was about. Reading it certainly inspires one to try to help today's children who are in similar situations. With the understanding gained by reading this, I will probably read one of the books that focuses on one or a few of the "orphans" (read O'Connor's book to understand the quotes) next. My grandfather was shipped west on an Orphan Train, and I wanted to get a non-fiction understanding of what that the whole thing was about. Reading it certainly inspires one to try to help today's children who are in similar situations. With the understanding gained by reading this, I will probably read one of the books that focuses on one or a few of the "orphans" (read O'Connor's book to understand the quotes) next.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Terrie K.

    This is one of the most difficult books I have read all year.It accounts for one man Charles Loring Brace starting the Children's Aid Society in New York in the mid 19th century. The book is so full of details, leaving nothing to the imagination, that I felt bogged down very early. I learned a lot about the Orphan Trains and the lives of children during that era. I recommend this book. But be ready to put in the time when the narrative starts to drag. This is one of the most difficult books I have read all year.It accounts for one man Charles Loring Brace starting the Children's Aid Society in New York in the mid 19th century. The book is so full of details, leaving nothing to the imagination, that I felt bogged down very early. I learned a lot about the Orphan Trains and the lives of children during that era. I recommend this book. But be ready to put in the time when the narrative starts to drag.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Trailhoundz

    This book is a very comprehensive biography of Charles Loring Brace, who founded the Children's Aid Society and began sending NYC orphans out west to be re-homed. It was a rather tedious read and I wish it would have focused more on his interaction with the children he sent out west. There was a nice photo insert included. This book is a very comprehensive biography of Charles Loring Brace, who founded the Children's Aid Society and began sending NYC orphans out west to be re-homed. It was a rather tedious read and I wish it would have focused more on his interaction with the children he sent out west. There was a nice photo insert included.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

    Historical account of the Chidlren's Aid Society Orphan trains and their founder Charles Loring Brace. The disucssions on attitudes about children in the Victoria era and the impact CAS had on modern child social work were interesting. Historical account of the Chidlren's Aid Society Orphan trains and their founder Charles Loring Brace. The disucssions on attitudes about children in the Victoria era and the impact CAS had on modern child social work were interesting.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    Published by the University of Chicago Press, where I work :-)

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kristiina

    It took me a while to finish because it had so much information. It was a very informative and interesting read. I learned things that I had never thought of before!

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    picked by krista discussion at Mongolian BBQ

  29. 5 out of 5

    Maureen Flatley

    More child welfare history and the roots of adoption practice in America.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Good biography that also explores shortcomings of modern foster care systems.

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