The Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum of Hamden, CT last year presented a program on the Orphan Train Riders, a group of an estimated 273,000 children, many of whom were Irish, who were transported from New York City to live with families in rural America during the 19th century.
Writer and photographer Tom Riley, who has been speaking publicly about the topic for 20 years and has written two books on the subject.
Riley told the Connecticut Post-Chronicle that while few records were kept regarding the trains, some estimate that between 400,000 and 600,00 were relocated between 1854 and 1929.
“Life in the 19th century in New York City could be a brutal for a child,” he said. “New York City was a magnet to immigrants in search of a job, but it was also a haven for alcoholics, drug addicts, thieves and murderers. The loss of a job, addiction, injury or death of a parent on the job and the absence of a social safety net often meant it was children who suffered the most.”
He said that on any given day 12,000 to 15,000 orphaned and homeless children were sleeping in alleyways, cardboard boxes, or sewer pipes throughout the city.
In 1832, a group of women concerned that young girls were being forced into prostitution formed the American Female Guardian Society. The group soon started taking in both boys and girls and later established 12 industrial schools where children were taught a trade and skills to support themselves.
“They did this work for 21 years before Charles Loring Brace came to New York City and was appalled at what he saw,” Riley said.
Riley came upon the history of the Orphan Trains by accident while researching a book on the home for children where he grew up. In a hayloft, he discovered 26 boxes of records dating back as far as 1832.