Photo of boys on the train

Photo of orphans

The story of this ambitious and finally controversial effort to rescue poor and homeless children begins in the 1850s, when thousands of children roamed the streets of New York in search of money, food and shelter--prey to disease and crime. Many sold matches, rags, or newspapers to survive. For protection against street violence, they banded together and formed gangs. Police, faced with a growing problem, were known to arrest vagrant children--some as young as five--locking them up with adult criminals.

In 1853, a young minister, Charles Loring Brace, became obsessed by the plight of these children, who because of their wanderings, were known as "street Arabs." A member of a prominent Connecticut family, Brace had come to New York to complete his seminary training. Horrified by the conditions he saw on the street, Brace was persuaded there was only one way to help these "children of unhappy fortune."

"The great duty," he wrote, "is to get utterly out of their surroundings and to send them away to kind Christian homes in the country."

In 1853, Brace founded the Children's Aid Society to arrange the trips, raise the money, and obtain the legal permissions needed for relocation. Between 1854 and 1929, more than 100,000 children were sent, via orphan trains, to new homes in rural America. Recognizing the need for labor in the expanding farm country, Brace believed that farmers would welcome homeless children, take them into their homes and treat them as their own. His program would turn out to be a forerunner of modern foster care.  

Placement into new families was casual at best. Handbills heralded the distribution of cargoes of needy children. As the trains pulled into towns, the youngsters were cleaned up and paraded on makeshift stages before crowds of prospective parents. 

Some of the farmers saw the children as nothing more than a source of cheap labor. Hazelle Latimer, an orphan train rider featured in the film, remembers a farmer with "old dirty hands" examining her teeth. There was also evidence of abuse by foster parents. Many of the older boys simply ran away; some children were rejected by their new parents.

As The Orphan Trains so poignantly reveals, even those for whom the journey ultimately was a triumph found the transition from one life to another almost always painful and confusing. "I would give a hundred worlds like this," wrote one child from her new comfortable home, "if you could see my mother," Brace himself grappled with the dilemma: "When a child of the streets stands before you in rags, with a tear-stained face, you cannot easily forget him. And yet, you are perplexed what to do. The human soul is difficult to interfere with. You hesitate how far you should go."







Orphan Train Girl Story: Anna May Potthoff Keeton

     The Orphan Train movement began in 1854 and continued until 1930. During this 75 year time span, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children were sent "west" from New York on trains to find new families. There were two main organizations that "shipped" children west to new homes. They were: 1) The Children's Aid Society run by Rev. Charles Loring Brace, and 2) The New York Founding Hospital, operated by the Sisters of Charity. It was hoped by these organizations, that by sending these "orphans" out west to find new "families" they would have a better chance of leading a happy and productive life, than if left to fend for themselves on the streets of New York. Both of these charitable organizations are still in operation today. The first Kansas-bound Orphan Train arrived in the state in 1867, and the last Kansas train arrived in 1930 (the same year the Orphan Train movement officirly ceased operations). During that time, it is estimated that between 5,000 and 6,O00 children were placed in Kansas homes. Some of these children were adopted by their new Kansas families, but many were not. The following is the story of two Kansasbound Orphan Train Riders.




     According to the records at the Children's Aid Society, Anna was born on April 23, 1895 and William was born on July 23, 1897. Both were born in Staten Island. Their parents were William and Anna White Potthoff. Their father was a painter. Both parents were Protestant. The last known address of the parents was 478 Cary Avenue, West New Brighton, Staten Island. The children's grandmother was Marie Potthoff of 21 South Street, West New Brighton, Staten Island. On July 6, 1909 Anna and William were placed in the Five Points House of Industry in New York City. No reason why was given. On January 10, 1911 they were transferred to The Children's Aid Society. By this time their parents where-abouts were unknown. On January 17, 1911 Anna and William had arrived by train in Oskaloosa, Kansas, and were placed with the Louis and Margaret Kimmel family. A baptismal certificate for Anna shows that she was baptized on April 18th, 1897, in Saint Paul's Church, Staten Island, New York. The certificate listed parents as William and Annie Potthoff and sponsors as James and Emily White (possibly her maternal grandparents). Efforts to find this church, to search their records, have been unproductive. Also, efforts to obtain access to the records of the Five Points House of Industry have been unproductive to date.




Young Anna     Anna spent the first 15 years of her life in Staten Island, New York. To the best of my knowledge she only had one sibling, her brother William who was two years younger. The only stories that Anna ever shared regarding her early life, were ones of playing on the docks and the large ships that were in port (it was a miracle she was never "shipped out to sea"), and stories of teasing the Chinese laundrymen until they chased her down the street with hot irons. After Anna's arrival in Kansas, at age 15, she was placed in the home of Louis and Margaret Kimmel of McLouth, Ks. Anna was never formally adopted by the Kimmel family and she never talked about her time spent there. At 19 years of age, Anna was married to a young man in the community. She never spoke of this young man, or her marriage, to her family. She obtained a divorce from him 3 years after the marriage, on the grounds of "abandonment for more than one year". There were no children from this marriage and Anna's maiden name was restored to her at that time. On February 20th, 1918 she was married to Joseph (Tony) Williamson Keeton in St. Joseph, Mo., and they settled down to married life in Topeka, Ks. Their first daughter, Mildred, was stillborn in 1922. But that tragedy was quickly followed with the births of Doris in 1923, Betty in 1926, and Joseph in 1928.

     Anna was a wonderful homemaker and cook and was very happy in her roles as wife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. Her home was always a favorite gathering place for family celebrations. While it does seem that her experiences as a young girl (placed in an orphanage, riding an Orphan Train, being sent to live with people she knew nothing about, marrying at age 19 only to be abandoned and then divorced) would be enough to make her bitter about life in general, this was not the case. This was definitely not the attitude she chose to take about life. She was a joyful person, a Christian, she loved people, loved her family, loved life.

     Anna passed away June 8, 1968 in Valley Falls, Ks. Her husband "Tony" passed away August 25, 1969 in Valley Falls, KS. Anna is survived by her 3 children, 5 grandchildren, 6 great-grandchildren, and 2 great-great- grandchildren.

To leave the list, send your request by email to: wunrn_listserve-request@lists.wunrn.com. Thank you.