Cerro Gordo County Iowa
Part of the IaGenWeb Project



Orphan Trains to Iowa

From 1853-1929 a mass migration of approximately 300,000 orphan children was in progress all across America. It is estimated that 8-10,000 babies, young children and young adults were brought to Iowa from many orphanages in Boston, New York and other northeastern coastal cities.

This event is referred to as the 'placing out' system. It was not a new concept as it had been used in Europe for many years prior to its use in America. This method of providing homes for orphans /children was the forerunner of foster care as we know it today.

Not all children were full orphans. Some had one or both parents living but they could not supply the needs of the child. Therefore, the parent turned them over to the various orphanages that were being supplied by the city.

Railroads to Iowa began in the early 1850's to and through Dubuque and Davenport, Iowa. The trips were planned for groups of 10-50 children along with their Agent(s) to arrive on Friday from New York. The Boston groups left on Sunday noon and the New York group left at noon on Tuesdays.

Children of all ages were chosen for the trip with the older ones helping the Agents take care of the younger ones. They came first in boxcars and later in Pullman cars. They were usually loaded first due to the large amount of luggage and food supplies needed for the long journey. When they were safely loaded on the train with their coats and lunches stored away, the Agents set aside dress clothes to be worn upon arrival at their destination.

When a child was chosen by a family then the Agent and the head of the household signed an agreement that they were willing to take full responsibility for the care of the child until it reached adulthood. It included attending church, school, food, clothing and any needs of the child. There was no cost to the family nor were they paid for the care of the child. This could be reversed at any time should a grievance occur between the child and family occur. Siblings were usually separated at this time as couples wanted only one child or perhaps two. They were sometimes located in the same city or a city nearby.

Research shows that very few adoptions or placements failed which speaks well for the families in Iowa. Farmers and merchants were in great need for assistance in the growing years of Iowa's development.

The first orphan train went to Dowagiak, Michigan in 1854. The last orphan train pulled into Trenton, Missouri 75 years later in 1929.

SOURCE: IAGenWeb's Orphan Train Project
Submission by Sharon R. Becker

Orphan Trains in Cerro Gordo County

The following reference is to an Orphan Train stop in Dougherty in 1885. It is unknown at the present whether the Orphan Trains made just one stop in Dougherty or multiple stops over the years. The 1900 census of Dougherty Township contains a number of adopted children, all born in New York. There are also several adopted children in the census with birthplaces in Iowa. It is unknown whether these children had any connection with the Orphan Trains.

There were three stops listed for Mason City - presumably the train would have stopped at Dougherty at these dates as well.

Mason City -- 1871
Mason City -- 1889
Mason City -- 1913

There is no evidence in the 1880 census however that any children in Dougherty were adopted in 1871. Which leaves the stop in 1889 as a possible date. The ages given for the children in the census would tend to support the 1889 date, with the exception of James BRISLEN, born ca. 1895. But the dates of birth given in the censuses are notoriously unreliable as a comparison between dates on tombstones in St. Patrick's cemetery and corresponding entries in the census will illustrate.

The following reference and date for a Dougherty adoption came from the internet - without any documentation.

Katie Kelley Keller   1885   Dougherty   Sally Morris

Adopted children from Dougherty Township; born in New York (1900 Census)

Brislen, James, 5 Jan 1895, adopted NY
Burke, Leavis, 13 Oct 1886, adopted NY
Campbell, Ella (McMenimen), 13 1886, adopted NS
McKenna, Robert, 15 Aug 1885, adopted NY
Boyle, William, 14 Oct 1885. adopted NY
Kelly, Patrick, 17 Apr 1883, adopted NY
O'Connor, George, 12 1888, adopted NY
Gaheran, Elizabeth, 14 Feb 1886, adopted NY
Ormsby, George, 15 Apr 1885, adopted NY
McLaughlin, Rose, 16 adopted NY
Murphy, George, 14 Apr 1886, adopted NY
Sinaley, James, 15
ward b. Sept 1884 NY
parents b. in NY
adopted by McMenimens
West Fork Twp, Franklin Co.
Burke, Mary H., 5 adopted IA
McGee, Joseph, 13 Nov 1886, adopted IA

In nearly every one of these orphan train adoptions, the place of birth of the person is listed as New York - Unk. - Unk. In the case of Ella Campbell (in the list above) her birthplace is given as NS - Unk - Unk. (or unknown for the birthplace of her parents). It is not clear at all what the NS stands for.

There are several other such entries in the 1900 census - and these may also be orphan train riders - but in the censuses they are not listed as adopted but generally appear as boarders or servants with a different surname.

Vinton, John, 22
residing Daniel Dougherty Farm
NS - unk - Unk
Danson, Harney, 24
residing Daniel Doughtery Farm
NS - Unk - Unk.
More?, Patrick
residing James Dougherty Farm
NS - Unk - Unk

Most of the tenants with Charles Mertz in the town of Dougherty follow the same pattern. Their place of birth is written unknown - but this is erased and written over with an NS., followed by unknowns for the birthplace of their parents.

Longler, Paul  
Morrison, W.  
Hanlon, John  
Denser, F.  
Callaghan, W?  
Lubi, E.  
Eagle, J.  
Burke, Thomas  
McGinnis, Roy
residing James H. Smith Farm
NS - Unk - Unk

According to the History of Dougherty, Iowa (When Irish Eyes are Smiling) the orphan train came to Dougherty in 1890.

"During the year 1890 a trainload of orphans were brought to the area. These children were from New York City and were left homeless when their parents became deceased or abandoned them. The children were brought to the area by a group of Catholic Sisters, named the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

"Many families of Cold Water were encouraged to adopt a children or children. Families of the time were often large and still there was always room for one children or more at their table or in their home.

"In all there were 24 orphans and they had no identification as their records had been destroyed by fire in New York. Their ages were from two to five years of age and the group was all boys with the exception of two girls.

"A total of 24 children were adopted by the people of Cold Water. Some families adopted more than one child. Some of the children received new given names and they all received new surnames.

"Some of the surnames given were: Monahan, Boyle, Toner, Kyle, McKenna, Coyle, Murphy, McMonagle, Kelsh, McCauley, Hogan, Dougherty, Ormsby, Burke,McGee, O'Connor, Campbell, McGahren.

"These children were all placed in good homes and were a blessing to their new found family and the community."

Contribution by John McLaughlin
NOTE: If anyone has any additional information on the Dougherty, Iowa
Orphan Train stop, please send me an email Lochlan@aol.com.

Orphan Trains to Cerro Gordo County

The following orphans arrived in Cerro Gordo County in 1880.

Agnes B.
Forest City 1912
a.k.a. Ruth Agnes Jensen
Bourdeaux, Helen
Mason City, 1922
ak.a. Margaret E. Bell
resided with Jess & Mary Bell
Caine, Harry 1886 Coldwater Twp. heir to Caine estate
Charles David
12 Jan 1909
Clear Lake, 1913
adopted by Davenports
with twin sister
twin sister
12 Jan 1909
Clear Lake, 1913
adopted by Davenports
with twin brother
Hile, John
Mason City
adopted by Sherers
Rev. Girly traveled with group
Keller, Katie 1885 Doughtery adopted by Kelley family
Martin, Elmer
Swaledale, 1913
resided with
Clarence Hansen Family
May, Casper John unknown Mason City adopted
Bella or Ella
Mason City
adopted by McMonagley Family
Volkert, sisters
Mason City, 1913
both sisters adopted
by Andrew Jorgensen Family
Viola Joanna
Mason City, 1913
adopted by
Andrew Jorgensen Family

SOURCE: usgenweb.iowa site
Contribution by Mary Ellen Johnson

Letter Accompanying an Orphan Rider
to Cerro Gordo County

No. 175 East 68th Street, New York City

No. 26
Mr. Jesse Bell
Mason City, Iowa

We take pleasure in notifying you that the little girl which you so kindly ordered will arrive at Manley, Rock Is. Train on Thurs., June 24, on the train due to arrive at 5:15 A.M., and ask that you kindly be at Railway Station to receive the child 30 minutes before the train is due to avoid any possibility of missing the connection, as train will not wait should you not be there.

The name of child, date of birth, and name and address of party to whom child is assigned will be found sewn in the Coat of boys and in the hem of the Dress of girls.

This receipt must be signed in ink by both husband and wife, and is to be given up in exchange for the child who will have a corresponding number.

Yours very truly,

Submission by Sharon R. Becker, February of 2011


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Orphan Train Riders to Iowa, An IAGenWeb Special Project


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