By the mid-1800s, thousands of orphan kids roamed the streets of New York City, and to a lesser degree, other East Coast cities. Immigrants could not always find suitable work or support a family, and as a result, children had to find ways to get by living in the streets.
Some New Yorkers found a solution for this: They would put the kids on trains and allow families to adopt them in America's heartland. Teen boys were seen as laborers for midwestern farms, but the trains ran from 1853 until 1929, sending kids ranging in age from 4 to 18 from New York and Boston to various points in the west.
Their arrival was advertised in advance in newspapers, and the children were cleaned up and displayed in public on a stage before potential parents. Some stories of the trains reported that the children sang and danced to attract parents; others were poked and prodded to judge their general health. To make it convenient for the new parents, the organizers allowed splitting up siblings, which along with the public display prior to adoption, led to some negative comparisons to the horrors of the American slave trade.
The movement started with the work of the Children's Aid Society, which was joined by other agencies. Catholic orphanages were overrun with more children than they could handle, so the Catholic-backed New York Foundling Hospital also organized trains so nothing ghastly -- like an orphan being placed with a Protestant family -- happened to the children.
The initial shock of being loaded on a train -- not much better than a livestock car in the early days -- must have been hard on the children. In some accounts, adult veterans of the orphan trains would describe riding "the orphan train" as if there was only one. Over time, as many as 250,000 children rode the orphan trains to their new homes, putting estimates at 2 million descendants of orphan train children living in America today.
The movement provided thousands of children a year with a fresh start, a chance to improve their lives. Two riders grew up to be elected governor of two states. While it didn't survive the Great Depression, the movement laid the foundation for foster parents and adoption that replaced it in the 20th Century.