The Orphan Trains

Orphan Train Crowd; Kansas State Historical Society

The escalating rate of immigration and burgeoning population of eastern cities between 1854-1929 gave rise to an unparalleled number of homeless, abandoned, and orphaned children. Overwhelmed and seeking to remedy the poverty, crime, and victimization related to this population, cities such as New York and Boston entrusted charitable institutions like the Children’s Aid Society and New York Foundling Hospital to place them with families in the West. The controversial strategy entailed shipping thousands of children via train to communities across rural America where they were adopted, often serving as farm workers and domestics.

Orphan Train Flyer (credit J.W. Swan)

In 1904 an orphan train from the New York Foundling Hospital transporting Irish Catholic children to pre-approved adoptive families on the Mexican border of the Arizona Territory met with opposition. The border town of Clifton exploded into a near riot, fueled by complex social and racial tensions within the community, when it was learned that some of the children were to be placed with Mexican families. Numerous lives were threatened and a mass kidnapping of the orphans ensued. It would take the intervention of local law enforcement, an Arizona Copper Company official, and later the U.S. Supreme Court, to sort out the events of those four days in the towns of Clifton and Morenci. In this program Arizona’s Official Historian Marshall Trimble recounts the events that led up to the fateful confrontation and examines the social significance of the orphan trains in the Arizona Territory.

Program included in museum admission; free for museum members.