Michigan State Seal

Between 1854 and 1927, 12,500 children from New York City and the Boston area rode the orphan trains to Michigan and were placed with families throughout the state. Michigan Dames heard this amazing statistic from Mr. Al Eicher, speaking to us at The Grosse Pointe Club on October 22. 

Mr. Eicher, along with his son David, produced the documentary The Orphan Train in Michigan, and explained that they first encountered evidence of Michigan’s role in this drama while researching the history of the town of Oxford.  

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Several books, both fiction and non-fiction, have been written about the American orphan trains. Children riding these trains were sent to nearly every state in the union. The Eichers learned that the first orphans to arrive in Michigan were fourteen boys who were placed with families in the southwestern town of Dowagiac in 1854. By 1927, forty-three towns within the lower and upper peninsulas had received children.

As our group watched the video, Mr. Eicher stopped several times to give us more personal accounts of many of the children who were placed. They generally ranged in age from two to fourteen, and the majority (about 61%) were boys. Most of these orphans were never formally adopted. The families who took children were almost always looking for help in one form or another, farm work and domestic work being most common. Their experiences ranged from ill treatment to great success, with most somewhere in the middle.

Why so many orphans and where did they come from? During the time period from the mid 1800s to the 1920s, large numbers of European immigrants arrived on the East Coast, especially in New York and Boston. Wars and famine were forcing these families to leave their homes in the hope of a better life in America. Most of these families came here with very little, and painfully, a few were eventually forced to either sell or give away their own children. In some cases, parents died and left young children to fend for themselves on the streets.

The New York Children’s Aid Society and The Boston Home for Little Wanderers were two of many agencies established to care for these unfortunate children, and the two that became the principal organizations sending orphans to Michigan. As the children grew up, many of them began contacting the two agencies for information about themselves and their birth parents. Currently the Eichers, working through their company Program Source International, are developing a Michigan Orphan Train Registry to document the names, places, and any pertinent information regarding the train riders. People may contact them to either give or receive information by emailing to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by going to their website at www.program-source.com

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