Editor's note: This piece originally was published on April 8, 2007, as part of David Harding's "Everyday History" column in The World-Herald.
They were rescued by the thousands from the streets of New York City, these children without functioning families. After a good scrubbing and a few lessons in manners, they dressed in the nicest set of clothes they'd ever worn and boarded trains bound for a more wholesome life in farm country.
They were riders on the "orphan trains," the nation's first organized attempt at foster care. Thousands came to the Plains and grew up as Nebraskans.
By the 1850s, New York tenements teemed with European immigrants, many of them unemployable, stricken by epidemics or otherwise at their wits' end during a time when there was no welfare system. An estimated 30,000 abandoned children roamed the streets. The Children's Aid Society and other organizations began to take them in and place them in homes across the country.
Newspaper ads announced the availability of these children, who were "of special promise in intelligence and health," according to an 1893 ad in the Tecumseh Chieftain, "and are sent free to those receiving them, on 90 days trial."
They ranged from 1 month to about 15 years of age. Local committees worked with an aid society representative to screen potential placement families. When the train pulled into town, wideeyed waifs were gathered on the courthouse lawn or the opera house stage, where they were selected by sympathetic matrons, childless couples and families that could use an extra hand on the farm.
"We do not refer to them as unfortunate children, as they are not," a newspaper in Schuyler, Neb., reported in 1898. "Why, some of these children are taken not only by wealthy people who have no children of their own, but are placed with people who are among our very best citizens."
The Orphan Trains relocated more than 150,000 children from eastern cities to western states between 1854 and 1929. At least 4,000 were placed in Nebraska.
Among its shortcomings, the program suffered from a casual screening process in many communities. Some children were abused, neglected or treated like slave labor. Quite a few ran away. Many never felt accepted in their new homes or communities, but it's hard to believe many would have been better off in New York.
Charles Sedlacek was born in 1900 and rode the Orphan Train to Pawnee City, Neb., in 1906 with his brother and sister. His mother died in childbirth a year earlier, and his father worked in a brush factory and couldn't manage three children.
Charlie was taken in by the Slack family, who had lost two children in childbirth before bringing Charlie home from the train depot. Mrs. Slack later gave birth to three boys, but she died as the third one was born. This put Mr. Slack in the odd position of having to surrender his newborn child to adoption while 12-year-old Charlie stayed with the family.
In 1903, 6-year-old Wilson Vorhew rode the Orphan Train to Exeter, Neb., where he was adopted by an elderly couple without children. The couple were delighted with their new charge, but both died within weeks of each other the following year. A neighboring family offered to care for the boy, known as Browney, until a new foster home could be arranged.
These neighbors had a large family of their own, including two orphan children left by a relative. Despite their newfound affection for Browney, they handed him over to the Rev. J.W. Swan a few weeks later. Swan was the Nebraska agent for the Children's Aid Society. He took the boy back to his home in Plattsmouth, Neb., and planned to find a new foster family through an appeal to his congregation at Sunday services.
Before Sunday arrived, Rev. Swan received a telegram from the overcrowded family in Exeter. The telegram simply said, "Bring Browney back."
New laws and changing attitudes about the care of needy children probably contributed to the demise of the Orphan Trains 75 years after the first children stared out the window of a passenger car rolling toward a new world.
Want more of this? Check out Omaha.com/history for more stories from our state's fascinating past.