Little Wanderers

Homeless children rode the rails to the Great Lakes Bay Region during the Orphan Train Movement

By the mid-1850s, the Northeastern Seaboard had experienced a massive influx of immigrants. Malnutrition contributed to disease, with death often claiming the breadwinner of the family. Children by the thousands lived on New York City and Boston streets, stealing food to survive.

Charles Brace, a Methodist minister, orchestrated the Orphan Train Movement. Its mission was to provide thousands of orphaned, neglected, or homeless children with better opportunities by placing them on trains in hopes that Midwest, rural, Christian families would adopt the destitute children, who came mostly from the New York Children’s Aid Society and the New England Home for Little Wanderers. About 200,000 children joined the western expansion movement between 1854 and 1927, the world’s largest migration involving only children.

In September 1854, the first Orphan Train riders traveling the Michigan Central Railroad arrived in Dowagiac, Michigan. Of the 50 boys aboard, 14 were placed. Those not chosen hoped they wouldn’t be passed over at the next stop. By 1927, 12,500 orphans were placed in 43 Michigan towns, including Bay City, Midland, and Lapeer.

Two or more agents accompanied the children, who were outfitted in fashionable new clothes. Most were between the ages of 3 and 16, and the younger the child, the better the chance for placement. Children not chosen boarded the train again while an agent telegraphed the next town with their estimated arrival time. People gathered at the town hall, church, or opera house, where they could inspect the children, checking teeth and muscles. Actual adoption was a rarity. Boys often became farm laborers, and older girls worked in the home or business as indentured servants. Still, for the majority of the children, their standard of living improved, although allegations of abuse tarnished the program.

Six-year-old Katherine “Kittie” Horton and her brother, Joseph, age 2, were born to Irish parents in Massachusetts but were sent to an orphanage after being neglected. In the late 1860s, the Orphan Train brought them to Bay City. While the Children’s Aid Society preferred that siblings remain together, it was a lofty goal. Judge Sydney Campbell chose Joseph; the boy enjoyed life at the Campbell home on Bay City’s Woodside Avenue. Joseph would later become a lawyer.

No one volunteered to adopt Kittie, although the Westover family, of the Westover Opera House in Bay City, “purchased” her as an indentured servant until she reached the age of 21. Kittie made allegations that she was mistreated. She did stay in contact with her brother, though, so there was one bright spot. Kittie would later marry Bay City businessman Stewart Huff with hopes of a better life.

In 1883, Amelia Randall of Freeland met the Orphan Train in Bay City, where she chose 9-year-old Arthur Thayer, who boarded the train in Massachusetts after his mother fell deathly ill with tuberculosis. Randall, a widow with one son, Winfield, treated Arthur like her own, and he flourished on her farm. Arthur had a good life, an Orphan Train success story.

The Pierson family chose a girl named Mae, who got off the Orphan Train in Lapeer. Mae grew up and married Kim Sigler, who served as Michigan’s governor in 1947-48. Mae went from rags to riches: the Orphan Train to Michigan’s First Lady!

True, some orphans fared better than others, but the Orphan Train Movement wound its way into the Great Lakes Bay Region, bringing with it new faces and hope for a new beginning.

Special thanks to Bay County historian Eric Jylha and Al Eicher (www.program-source.com) for sharing resource information.


Homeless children rode the rails to the Great Lakes Bay Region during the Orphan Train Movement

By the mid-1850s, the Northeastern Seaboard had experienced a massive influx of immigrants. Malnutrition contributed to disease, with death often claiming the breadwinner of the family. Children by the thousands lived on New York City and Boston streets, stealing food to survive.

Charles Brace, a Methodist minister, orchestrated the Orphan Train Movement. Its mission was to provide thousands of orphaned, neglected, or homeless children with better opportunities by placing them on trains in hopes that Midwest, rural, Christian families would adopt the destitute children, who came mostly from the New York Children’s Aid Society and the New England Home for Little Wanderers. About 200,000 children joined the western expansion movement between 1854 and 1927, the world’s largest migration involving only children.

In September 1854, the first Orphan Train riders traveling the Michigan Central Railroad arrived in Dowagiac, Michigan. Of the 50 boys aboard, 14 were placed. Those not chosen hoped they wouldn’t be passed over at the next stop. By 1927, 12,500 orphans were placed in 43 Michigan towns, including Bay City, Midland, and Lapeer.

Two or more agents accompanied the children, who were outfitted in fashionable new clothes. Most were between the ages of 3 and 16, and the younger the child, the better the chance for placement. Children not chosen boarded the train again while an agent telegraphed the next town with their estimated arrival time. People gathered at the town hall, church, or opera house, where they could inspect the children, checking teeth and muscles. Actual adoption was a rarity. Boys often became farm laborers, and older girls worked in the home or business as indentured servants. Still, for the majority of the children, their standard of living improved, although allegations of abuse tarnished the program.

Six-year-old Katherine “Kittie” Horton and her brother, Joseph, age 2, were born to Irish parents in Massachusetts but were sent to an orphanage after being neglected. In the late 1860s, the Orphan Train brought them to Bay City. While the Children’s Aid Society preferred that siblings remain together, it was a lofty goal. Judge Sydney Campbell chose Joseph; the boy enjoyed life at the Campbell home on Bay City’s Woodside Avenue. Joseph would later become a lawyer.

No one volunteered to adopt Kittie, although the Westover family, of the Westover Opera House in Bay City, “purchased” her as an indentured servant until she reached the age of 21. Kittie made allegations that she was mistreated. She did stay in contact with her brother, though, so there was one bright spot. Kittie would later marry Bay City businessman Stewart Huff with hopes of a better life.

In 1883, Amelia Randall of Freeland met the Orphan Train in Bay City, where she chose 9-year-old Arthur Thayer, who boarded the train in Massachusetts after his mother fell deathly ill with tuberculosis. Randall, a widow with one son, Winfield, treated Arthur like her own, and he flourished on her farm. Arthur had a good life, an Orphan Train success story.

The Pierson family chose a girl named Mae, who got off the Orphan Train in Lapeer. Mae grew up and married Kim Sigler, who served as Michigan’s governor in 1947-48. Mae went from rags to riches: the Orphan Train to Michigan’s First Lady!

True, some orphans fared better than others, but the Orphan Train Movement wound its way into the Great Lakes Bay Region, bringing with it new faces and hope for a new beginning.

Special thanks to Bay County historian Eric Jylha and Al Eicher (www.program-source.com) for sharing resource information.

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