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Riding the rails in search of family

Historical Society hosts program on orphan trains in Michigan

March 27, 2013

» click to enlarge «
Arlene Robertson speaks with St. Clair Shores resident Arnold Warnock after her presentation for the Roseville Historical and Genealogical Society at Erin Auditorium March 19.
The books in Robertson’s collection cover much of the history of orphan trains in America.

ROSEVILLE — The Roseville Historical and Genealogical Society captivated the audience at their monthly program March 19 with a presentation on the history of orphan trains in Michigan.

“In 1850, the population of New York City was 500,000,” presenter Arlene Robertson said at the start of the evening.

“An estimated 10,000-30,000 homeless children were living on the streets or warehoused in orphanages. Some of their parents fell victim to typhoid, the yellow fever or the flu. Many of them were the sons and daughters of down-on-their-luck immigrants who were flooding into the city from Europe.”

It was with those homeless children in mind that Charles Loring Brace, a minister and reformer, founded the Children’s Aid Society in New York City in 1853.

“He thought the good-hearted families in small towns and on farms could take the children, educate them and see that they have a religious upbringing,” Robertson said.

“In return, it was understood that the children would contribute to labor in the family. That was expected of all children at the time.”

In 1854, Brace sent the first group of 39 children, between the ages of 3 and 16, to Michigan. Within a week, they all had homes.

It’s estimated that, in the 75 years that followed, as many as 350,000 orphaned and homeless children were sent westward on trains from New York City and Boston in search of families.

They rode in groups of between 10 and 100, making stops around the country, where prospective parents would wait at train depots to examine the lot.

“Many riders recalled with horror, how prospective parents examined them,” Robertson said before reading one orphan’s memory of the process.

“‘We were lined up on the stage, and all I could see were wall-to-wall people. They surrounded us, made us turn around, lifted our skirts to see if our legs were straight, opened our mouths to see our teeth.’”

Those who didn’t get picked would head back to the rails and hope for better luck at the next stop.

Orphan trains traveled throughout the continental United States, but Michigan was one of the most popular destinations, with stops in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Flint, Bay City, Oscoda, Dowagiac, Albion and more than a dozen other cities.

Robertson, a Bloomfield Township resident, has become a self-taught expert on the subject in the 10 years since she first heard the term “orphan train.” It was perfect timing for a new hobby — she had just retired as the state choir director for the Daughters of the American Revolution and she had extra time to pursue this interesting chapter in Michigan’s history.

The time she’s spent on it shows. Her presentation was a mix of facts, orphan accounts and collected data.

“Some children, unfortunately, were taken only for their labor,” she said. “In 1888, a group of 30 boys between the age of 10-15 were sent to a glassworks factory in Ohio that needed cheap laborers. Others were taken as farm hands or kitchen drudges. Some of the children were physically, emotionally or sexually abused, but most of the placing out worked well.”

Between 1850 and 1929, more than 12,500 orphan-train children were placed in the state, most of the time with loving families.

Sitting in the audience, St. Clair Shores resident Andy Warnock knows firsthand how well the program could work. His uncle, now deceased, had come to Michigan on the rails as an orphan.

“I got an uncle that was on the train,” Warnock said. “He was placed in Jackson. But we don’t know what year or how old he was when he was adopted. He had three or four older sisters, too, that were adopted by the same family, unless they had daughters and wanted a son. We really don’t know much.”

Robertson offered a few suggestions for where he could look for information after the meeting, including an orphan-train organization in Kansas that, for $20, will search what records they’ve been able to compile. But she warned, “This is a very difficult area to research. … There isn’t much out there.”

Far from discouraged by the lack of information, the program seemed to motivate Warnock and his wife, Sally, to pursue what little information might be available.

“Being adoptive parents, ourselves, and my husband’s uncle having come to Michigan on an orphan train, the whole program really had a special meaning for us,” Sally Warnock said. “It hit very close to home. It was excellent.”

The Roseville Historical and Genealogical Society hosts monthly programs in Erin Auditorium at the Roseville Public Library. For information on programs or membership, visit For more information on orphan train genealogical research, visit

For more local news coverage, see the following newspaper:


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