Iowa’s Orphan Train Heritage

Orphan trains almost became lost to history just a few decades ago, but their legacy lives on, thanks to books, historians and the National Orphan Train Complex in Kansas. Orphan trains continue to make news, in light of today’s current debatesregarding illegal immigration and amnesty.

Since orphan trains to Iowa and the Midwest were featured on 1040 WHO Radio this morning, I thought I’d share this article I wrote in 2002 for Farm News in Ft. Dodge, Iowa. I didn’t know at the time how I’d be preserving an important piece of history, since the last orphan trains ran in 1929, and many of the orphan train riders are now deceased.

For 75 years, thousands of Iowa families in small towns and farms played a crucial role in the forerunner of the modern foster care system, yet this noteworthy fact has become a lost chapter of Iowa history.

From 1854 to 1929, a network of “orphan trains” relocated as many as 300,000 children from East Coast orphanages in cities like Boston and New York City to at least 39 of the states.  Approximately 8,000 to 10,000 of these needy children were brought to Iowa to live with both farmers and town residents.

The children were taken in by families in at least 316 Iowa towns, including Adel, Algona, Ames, Barnum, Boone, Coon Rapids, Dakota City, Dougherty, Eagle Grove, Ft. Dodge, Emmetsburg, Garner, Harlan, Iowa Falls, Manson, Nevada, Ogden, Perry, Spencer, Stanhope and Webster City, according to Madonna Harms of Rolfe, archivist of the Iowa Orphan Train Research Center and Archives.

“People were curious and went in droves to see an orphan train when it arrived in town. Some of these folks never intended to take a child home, but they sometimes took one or two. It has been estimated that today there are at least two million descendants of the orphan train riders,” Harms said.

A Personal Interest
Since the early 1990s, Harms has dedicated her days to managing the Iowa Orphan Train Research Center and Archives. Why the interest?

“My father was an orphan train rider. When I started researching his history, I found out he was taken by a young woman, presumed to be his mother, to the New York Foundling Hospital when he was two and a half months old. He was born on June 29, 1885, and the name he lived by was Perry Joseph Hoffey. He was raised by William and Margaret Hoffey in Iowa County, in Marengo and Parnell. They were barn builders. I don’t know exactly when my father came to Iowa, but I found him listed in the home of the Hoffeys in the 1895 census.”

Until her research in 1990 started uncovering these facts, Harms said she hadn’t known that her father’s real name was Pierre Casson. Harms also learned that her father’s story was shared by thousands of people who grew up in the Midwest and across the United States.

Trying Times
The need for orphan trains developed in an environment vastly different from the Iowa countryside. When the orphan train movement began in the 1850s, it was estimated that nearly 30,000 abandoned children roamed the streets of New York City alone. The rapid influx of immigrants into eastern cities overwhelmed the nation’s ports, and the overpopulated cities were not prepared with enough homes, food and medical care for the new arrivals, Harms said.
In these difficult circumstances, children of all ages were left to fend for themselves on the streets. They survived the best they could by shining shoes, selling newspapers or flowers, singing on street corners, or by stealing, Harms said. They were also prime targets for crime, disease, street violence, gangs, and a host of other problems.

While some of these children had lost both of their parents, some were “half orphans,” when one parent had died and the remaining parent could not care for them. In other cases, the parents were still living but could not raise their children due to alcoholism, insufficient resources, injuries, or other obstacles.

Consider the story of Dorothy Urch, an orphan train rider to Algona. She arrived in Iowa as Dorothy Brooks and was raised as Dorothy Johnson. “I was born in 1911 and arrived in Algona in February 1917 from the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. I had come from a family of 10 kids, and I was the ninth. My father died when I was four, and Mother couldn’t take care of all the younger kids. She didn’t want us in an orphanage, though, so she gave us up to the Children’s Aid Society.”

A Home in the Country
The Children’s Aid Society had been founded in the 1850s by a young Protestant minister named Charles Loring Brace. He was horrified by the condition of the street children he observed in New York City and took action to rescue them. Brace felt these children had a better chance at life by being placed in a new home “out west” than they did if they remained in the cities. He envisioned families in the west who would provide the orphans with the same food, clothing, education and spiritual training they would give their biological children.

“The best of all asylums for the outcast child is the farmer’s home. The great duty is to get these children of unhappy fortune utterly out of their surroundings and to send them away to kind Christian homes in the country,” Brace wrote.

In 1853, Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society to arrange the trips, raise the money and obtain the legal permission needed for relocation. The first train left New York City in 1854. Harms noted that the Catholic Church developed a similar system, known as “mercy cars,” to relocate orphan children to the Midwest.
The orphan train trips were planned for groups of 10 to 50 children that were accompanied by an agent, Harms said. The trains from New York typically departed on Tuesday and arrived in Iowa on Friday. Newspaper advertisements gave advanced notice of which communities the children would be arriving in.

In the early years when an orphan train arrived at the depot, the children were escorted by livery wagons, or they walked to the local hotel, church or opera house to get washed up and change their clothes, Harms said. “Then they were ready to be seen by the folks who had gathered to view them and perhaps take one home with them. Sometimes the children sang songs, recited poems or simply visited with the crowd,” Harms said.
The Palo Alto Reporter of Oct. 2, 1880 reported, “Mr. E. Trott of the New York Children’s Aid Society arrived in Emmetsburg a week ago with a second installment of boys and one girl. There were 19 of the boys, and they were of all sizes, and there was surely not less than 38 different temperaments divided among them.”

Dorothy’s Story
When a family selected a child, the agent and the head of the household signed an agreement that the family would take full responsibility to care for the child until he or she reached adulthood, Harms said. There was no cost to the family, and the family was not paid for the care of the child. The agreement could be reversed at any time, should a grievance occur between the child and the family.

When children were placed in homes, siblings were often separated, since many couples only wanted one child, Harms said. This was the case with Dorothy Urch when she went to live with John and Carrie Johnson on their farm seven miles southeast of Algona.

“I don’t remember riding the train to Iowa. My baby brother was sent to Kansas, and his family later moved to Canada. I wasn’t able to track him down until about three years ago. Until about four years ago, I didn’t even know about the orphan trains or that I was an orphan train rider. I later found a newspaper clipping at the Kossuth County Historical Society that confirmed my arrival on an orphan train,” Urch said.

When asked about her years on the farm near Algona, Urch speaks highly of the Johnsons, who adopted her in 1923. “They had a daughter who died when she was 13 months old and they couldn’t have more children. To be adopted is wonderful. My parents were fine Christian people. I enjoyed living on the farm. My father farmed raised corn, oats and hay, and he farmed with horses until after I was married. When I was young, I helped with household chores and took care of the chickens.”

Urch, who now lives in Greenville, S.C., said her birth mother came to Iowa to visit her when Dorothy was 12 years old. “We stayed in touch, and I went to New York to visit her. I felt secure where I was in Iowa, though.”
To share her story and make more people aware of the history of the orphan trains, Urch has written a book called “Charles Found at Last,” named in honor of her younger brother who was sent to Kansas. Urch returned to Iowa last April for a book signing at the Algona library. Today, Urch speaks to school groups, civic clubs and churches about her orphan train experiences and life on her family’s Iowa farm.


A High Success Rate
While the orphan trains ended in 1929 when new child welfare laws were established, interest in Iowa’s orphan train heritage continues to grow, said Harms, who handles five to seven requests a week from people seeking more information. There is no charge for her services.

“Much can be said for and against this method of obtaining homes and the upbringing of the child. But in Iowa, the rate of runaways was only 2 percent, and 85 percent of the matches were successful, meaning the children did not have to be removed from one home to another. The orphan trains are a lost part of our history, and I do this work to bring families together.”

Editor’s note: Madonna Harms passed away in 2005.
Learn more

4 responses to “Iowa’s Orphan Train Heritage”

  1. Deb Wessels says:

    We believe my Grandmother was adopted by a couple in Nevada Iowa. We would like to pursue information on this.

    • Darcy Maulsby says:

      Hi Deb, thanks for your interest in my Orphan Trains blog post. The lady I knew who was well-versed in Iowa orphan train riders passed away a few years ago. You might be able to find some information at this site:

      Good luck!

  2. Angela Lensch says:

    Another great historical Iowa piece, you’er an eloquent writer. Thanks for sharing!

Recent Posts


Archive by year