In the late 1800s and early 1900s, New York City had a tremendous problem — thousand and thousands of orphans and unwanted children. Widespread poverty and disease had resulted in the city being overrun with children without families. Many of these children were from immigrant families who had left their extended families back in their homelands and if one or both parents died, there was no one to take care of these children.
The massive influx of new immigrants crowded the city at a time when a series of depressions and financial hardships created great unemployment. Children were neglected, homeless and forced to beg for food or perform small services like shinning shoes or selling newspapers.
A plan was organized by Minister Charles Loring Brace to rid New York of homeless street children and provide them with an opportunity to find homes in Texas. Children would be rounded up, dressed in newer clothes and placed aboard trains bound for Texas. This nearly 80-year experiment is filled with stories of sorrow and others with happy endings. The trains that swept the children to Texas were an attempt to remove the youth from the squalor and poverty of New York and give them chances for better lives. The plan was successful in most cases. Some children were taken into families as one of their own while others were “adopted” for only one purpose, to serve as laborers. Some were not even allowed to sleep in the house, but slept in sheds or barns.
Between 1854 and 1929, more than 250,000 orphans were sent from New York to Texas by train. The first train left New York in September 1854 with 46 10- and 12-year-old boys and girls. All were successfully placed in homes.
The orphan trains would stop at pre-selected towns where people interested in adopting a child would assemble. The children were lined up on the depot platform or some selected meeting hall. One report by Allison Moore described how the orphans would stand on the depot platform, holding cardboard suitcases with their names written on the sides. Due to early morning drizzle or dew, some of the names soon became blurred, the letters dripping into illegible graffiti. Moore wrote a song describing the orphan trains. Some of the lyrics were: “Maybe this town will be my new home, maybe someone will call my name or maybe I’ll be riding forever on the orphan train.”
Many of these children were examined and inspected to determine whether they would be good workers on farms tending crops or ranches herding livestock. The children mostly were between the ages of 2 and 14 but some were infants who travelled with nuns. The trains were called the “Baby Trains.” Because there were so many babies, the siblings often were separated.
Children not chosen were returned to the train and the event would be repeated at the next stop. Many of the children then were shuttled from family to family. It was noted that red-headed girls were not desired or even allowed on some trains. Many of the red-headed orphans were from families who immigrated from Ireland during the potato famine. At the time, the Irish were not welcomed in many cities.
In 1904, five orphans (four boys and one girl) escorted by two nuns were loaded on a train bound for Seguin,where they were to start their new lives with new families. Upon arrival, the children were warmly received by the adopting families, making adjustments to their new surroundings quick and easy. In 1900, Raymond Downes arrived in Seguin, and was not officially adopted but lived with Eugene and Bertha Grein.
According to the Seguin Conservation Society, another orphan to arrive in Seguin was Alice O’Brien, who was born in New York on May 28, 1905. Alice was taken in by John and Julie Magin but nine months later, Mrs. Magin died. German-born carpenter Louis Dietz and his sister Mollie applied to the Catholic parish to raise Alice in their home.
Alice moved to her second home on May 10, 1910. That year, Louis built the Victorian Doll House for her, which now is located in the Seguin Conservation Society’s Heritage Village at 415 S. River St. The Doll House originally sat next to the Dietz Cabinet Shop at 427 Milam St. He built the ornate furniture and crafted rocking horses, gray elephants, camels and animals on wheels. A child-sized wardrobe and dresser were crafted by Louis and are on display in the Doll House.
Pablo Castilla and his son, Ralph, gave the Dietz Doll House to the Seguin Conservation Society in 1967 and it was relocated to the Heritage Village.
The last orphan train to Texas was in 1929 to Sulphur Springs.