Early 20th-century Orphan Trains connect Shelburne man to history

Photo by Rosalyn Graham
John and Susan Roberts came from Hinesburg to hear Daniel Bean, left, talk about Orphan Trains from the turn of the 20th century. They asked if Bean could identify any of the historic photos they collect at flea markets and yard sales as a hobby.

By Rosalyn Graham

Donald James Bean was only 3 years old when he arrived in Enosburg Falls on a train from New York City.

It was Nov. 5, 1905, and he was one of eight homeless children aboard what had come to be known as an Orphan Train, transporting children of all ages from big cities like New York and Boston, where the population of orphans and runaways was exploding, to adoptive homes in more rural parts of the country.

The search for the story behind that little boy’s train ride to a home in Vermont sparked many decades of research and discovery for Daniel Bean of Shelburne, Donald’s son, who was a junior in high school when his father died in an automobile accident.

Without any parental reminiscing to answer his questions, Daniel began a search for his family history. It led him to the amazing story of the Orphan Trains, a story that he shares in lectures near and far, including his talk hosted by the Shelburne Historical Society last week.

Bean, a retired St. Michael’s College biology professor who lives in Shelburne, explained the background of the Orphan Trains.

The population in America’s East Coast cities grew exponentially in the early 1800s, from 33,131 in 1790 to half a million in 1848. And the number of street children, either orphans or runaways, ballooned as result of poverty and disease. They begged, earned pennies as bootblacks or paperboys, slept in doorways and were imprisoned in large numbers.

A concerned group of wealthy New Yorkers founded the New York Children’s Aid Society and hired Charles Loring Brace as its director in 1853. Brace, a minister, organized schools where the children could learn to read and write and have a bed and food, but it was his travels to England and Germany that sowed the seeds of a solution to finding homes and futures for them.

Some European countries were sending children on trains to rural areas; England was sending them by ship to Canada.

It was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, railways were being built, the American West was opening, farmers were eager for workers. Brace, working with priests and ministers in towns and cities of the West and New England, established a system with church and community leaders to gather names of families who were looking for children to adopt or workers for their farms and industries. The city children were sent in groups, with an adult escort, to their new homes on what came to be known as Orphan Trains.

Bean said that by 1910, 105,000 children had been sent to 48 states, including 262 to Vermont.

Tracking down the details of the Orphan Trains and their cargoes of children, from toddlers to teens, has taken Bean to libraries, historical societies, the archives of Children’s Aid Societies and Foundling Hospitals, and to high school reunions and family gatherings where stories of ancestors who arrived on Orphan Trains were shared.

He has woven the stories of happy endings and amazing coincidences into a talk that he presents regularly for community groups in Vermont and beyond, as he did in Shelburne. Bean also spoke with Vermont Public Radio. Hear that interview at bit.ly/vtorphantrains.

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