Charles Loring Brace

The Founder of the Orphan Trains

Charles Loring Brace was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, June 19, 1826. He was educated for the clergy and ordained as a Methodist minister. But at the age of twenty-six he was asked to head up the newly forming Children's Aid Society of New York, which became his life ministry. A true humanitarian, Rev. Brace walked the streets of New York that were swollen with successive tides of emigrants. He talked with people from all walks of life until he knew all its infrastructures and human predicaments. His focus became the neglected "street children" and other children of poverty. Here he felt there was hope for redeeming their young lives, their fate not yet hardened. An astute social analyst as well, Brace believed addressing the needs of these thousands of street children was mandatory if society hoped to prevent a growing "dangerous class" of criminals sucking on society just to survive.

But Brace was against "charity" for its own sake. He believed that orphanages (and institutional life in general), and even "soup kitchens" that simply handed out meals, developed an unhealthy dependence on "being done for" rather than "doing for oneself." All Brace's efforts--newsboy lodging houses, Sunday boys' meetings, industrial schools, night schools, and workshops--were efforts to help the young help themselves.

But even these efforts fell short, as far as Rev. Brace was concerned. True reformation of a young life could only take place in a family setting, preferably in the country or small town, in which a young person could experience a normal life at its best. To Brace, the best possibility for addressing the "dangerous classes" was to remove homeless children from New York and send them to "good Christian homes" in the West. This was mutually beneficial, because farm families could always use additional helping hands. The children, however, were not to be "indentured servants" or "apprentices," but taken into the family as foster children with all the rights and privileges (as well as responsibilities) of natural children. Some children were even adopted.

At this time in history, with westward expansion and the building of the railroads across the country, the primary mode of transporting children to the Midwest was by train. Thus, the "orphan trains" were born, a systematic "placing out" of children that continued for almost seventy-five years. Though the plan had its critics and occasional failures, about two hundred thousand children were placed in families, most of whom grew up to become productive citizens. The Society made every attempt to follow up on the children they placed, and a report in 1910 said that eighty-seven percent were "doing well."

Charles Loring Brace was a prolific writer--of letters, pamphlets, articles, and books--and a tireless speaker on behalf of neglected children. His persuasive arguments won support from "the better classes" for his humanitarian efforts.

He married Miss Letitia Neill in Belfast, Ireland, on August 21, 1854, returning to New York and the fledgling Children's Aid Society in September. Mrs. Brace was a great support to her husband's humanitarian efforts, not the least of which was providing an oasis of sanity and civility in their home life, a refuge from the dreadful conditions he encountered daily in his work with street children.

Though committed to his work in the city, Rev. Brace drew great inspiration and renewal from the country. He decided that city children could benefit from exposure to the country, as well. In 1875, a summer home was established where street children could spend a week in the fresh air by the sea. Later, after his death, the Brace Memorial Farm was established where street children could not only learn farming skills, but manners and personal social skills to help prepare them for family life.

Charles Loring Brace died of Bright's disease on August 11, 1890, but his son, C. L. Brace, Jr., and other dedicated agents continued his work. The orphan trains finally came to an end in the 1920s, as changing social attitudes about family focused on keeping families together, and changing laws helped curb child labor and established compulsory education.

But in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Charles Loring Brace and the Children's Aid Society of New York had worked tirelessly to save the lives of thousands of neglected children, most of whom became productive citizens and include: a governor of a state, a governor of a territory, members of Congress, district attorneys, sheriffs, mayors, judges, college professors, clergymen, school principals, teachers, artists, railroad officials, journalists, bankers, physicians, lawyers, civil engineers, businessmen, mechanics, farmers, servicemen and women, as well as husbands and wives and parents.

2001 Dave and Neta Jackson