Our Orphan Train Lady
Tracing ancestors can be a fascinating hobby. All the resources available on the Internet may uncover facts that may be lost or unknown to even the most avid researcher bitten with the family-history bug.
I knew, for example, that my mother had been adopted in New York City before 1920—I have a copy of the letter from the Children’s Aid Society in Manhattan dated 1921. What I subsequently discovered from clues found in that letter led to an important part of American history.
The 1921 letter to the Elmira couple who adopted my mother when she was five was written by Anna Laura Hill, a placing agent known as “the orphan train lady.” The two-page letter was filled with intriguing, personal clues, including last names and other details, like, “the father was an architect.” I wondered why Miss Hill would write an informal letter addressed to “Dear Frances,” assuming that Children’s Aid was an adoption group that rarely gave out that kind of information.
My Internet search for Anna Laura Hill led me to the Tri-County genealogy website curated by Joyce Tice, an invaluable resource for family and social histories of Tioga and Bradford counties in Pennsylvania and Chemung County in New York. There I found the key: an 1898 elementary school graduation souvenir booklet from Hickory Grove School with “Teacher Anna Laura Hill” and her sepia-colored photo on the front cover. She was twenty.
More digging revealed that Anna Laura and both my grandparents had grown up in West Burlington, just outside of Troy (my grandmother, Frances, was even the same age as Anna Laura; all the families attended the Methodist Church). The kind-hearted “orphan train lady” had arranged my mother’s adoption for two old school friends.
The history of the orphan trains and Anna Laura Hill’s role as a “placing agent” is fast receding. The last train carrying hopeful children westward was in 1929. But it has been estimated by the National Orphan Train Museum that more than 250,000 children found new homes during the seventy-five years of what is now remembered as the Orphan Train Movement. Before it ended, children were placed in forty-five states as well as in Canada and Mexico.
Anna Laura accepted a position at the Children’s Aid Society in 1903. Charles Loring Brace had founded the organization in 1853 with the hope that orphan children would thrive in a home environment with parents who genuinely wanted to raise them, and that the fresh air and hard work that farms provided would prove beneficial to them. “There’s always room at a farmer’s table,” Brace wrote in 1872. At the time there were as many as 10,000 homeless children in Manhattan, and his proposal to “place out” the city’s orphans to the wide-open country beyond New York City became the foundation of the social work profession in the U.S.
Charles Brace died in 1890. By 1900 the Children’s Aid Society was the largest aid group in New York City; in 1903 Anna Laura, the schoolteacher from West Burlington, joined the organization. Until she retired from her duties in 1932, Anna Laura accompanied groups of children on their long train rides from New York westward, often with Kansas as a destination. Her own well-kept records show that she made 160 rail trips with groups of orphans. There were sometimes fifty or more children, aged five to seventeen, occupying a single railcar.
The train trips lasted days and often were not easy ones. The children, in their new clothes and given a Bible to read, would, understandably, become restless, and the journey itself would be affected by weather or hazardous track conditions. In a 1913 letter to her mother in West Burlington, Anna Laura wrote about a flood: “While at Bellevue we could see the men and boys going about town on rafts and many houses entirely surrounded by water. We were in constant danger for twenty six hours and such awful places that we went thru and over, submerged tracks, water on both sides and two terrible rivers. We crossed a river at midnight. They sent a work train and 200 workmen ahead of us, they worked about two hours making the bridge more secure. They put in 8 car loads of rock and sand-bags, then took two engines across, and then we went over. It was an anxious time for every one on that train, not a berth was occupied that night.”
The letter ends with even more unexpected news: “We have taken a three week-old baby born here and I do not know yet what we will do with her.”
Most of the children were seldom told about their final destinations. Advance advertisements in newspapers drew crowds to theaters and sometimes right to the train station, where children were lined up for inspection by townspeople. The National Orphan Train Complex explains that the children would “take turns giving their names, singing a little ditty, or ‘saying a piece.’” There were many brothers and sisters sent out on the train; when one was chosen for a new home and the other left behind, realization that the other was being led away was often loud and tearful.
Anna Laura witnessed many scenes like this. Later she would write, “The requirements for a worker at that time were physical strength, fearlessness, imagination, sense of humor, love of children...and a missionary spirit...I tackled the job, much as fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” She moved to Topeka, Kansas, in 1917 and continued to make the train journey back to New York for more children, as well as make regular home inspections to check on each family’s progress and report problems. Thousands of children that were placed were monitored by only a handful of agents across the U.S.; the Society letterhead on the 1921 letter to “Dear Frances” contained the names of only eight placing agents.
Anna Laura was seemingly tireless, though the work must have been exhausting. Home visits were a requirement twice a year until the child turned eighteen. She documented those visits with her camera. There are over 200 photographs showing boys and girls with their new families. Her precise recordkeeping later helped to reunite separated siblings. There were always more grueling train trips to make.
Taken together the results of the Children’s Aid Society’s efforts were considered a success. A survey conducted in 1910 reflected that eighty-seven percent of the placed children reported as “done well,” eight percent returned to New York, and five percent had died or had been arrested.
Still, there was growing opposition by the late 1920s that the orphan children were becoming “a public charge” in their new communities. Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota, and other states passed regulations guaranteeing payment of a large bond for adoption of out-of-state children. Railroads were sued by parents attempting to reclaim runaways. Catholic clergy maintained that some charities were deliberately placing Catholic children in Protestant homes to change their religious practices. By the beginning of the 1930s, however, the Children’s Aid Society had inspired nearly thirty more “placing organizations,” and local groups themselves were realizing the need to take care of destitute children, organizing the first programs of foster care.
The work of the Children’s Aid Society had other national and far-reaching results. As early as 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt called a conference to discuss the care of disadvantaged children: “Surely nothing ought to interest our people more than the care of the children who are destitute and neglected but not delinquent. Personally, I very earnestly believe that the best way in which to care for dependent children is in the family home.” The ideas expressed were an echo of the work started by Charles Loring Brace sixty years before. One of the provisions of the 1935 Social Security Act signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt not only approved funding for child welfare services, but also provided grants-in-aid to states for financial aid to dependent children, maternal and child health services, and services for crippled children.
Anna Laura Hill never married, but considered the orphans as her children, corresponding with them for many years after she moved to Elmira and continued working in foster services throughout Chemung County. She died in 1963 and is buried in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Soon thereafter, Anna Laura was honored as an “Extraordinary Woman of History” by the Daughters of the American Revolution. One of the lasting results of her tireless work is that there are an estimated two million descendants of orphan train riders in the U.S.—a lasting tribute to the idealism of Charles Loring Brace and his faith in the kindness of total strangers, and a testament to Anna Laura’s dedication.
In 1985 the National Orphan Train Complex opened in Concordia, Kansas, offering research tools, education, history, and permanent exhibitions of letters, photographs, and other memorabilia. A life-size statue of Anna Laura Hill joins twenty-four statues of orphan train riders who found new homes and new hope through her work. For more information, visit orphantraindepot.org.