Iowa Orphan Train Research Center

One of the great chapters in American History

Largest migration of children in the world

The story of the Orphan Train Riders is one of the great chapters in American History. From 1854 until 1929, an estimated 175,000 - 250,000 children from the streets and overcrowded orphanages of large eastern cities were put on trains to the Midwest in what was the single largest migration of children in the world. Approximately 10,000 of these children were taken in by Iowa families who promised to provide food, shelter, and schooling.

To explore this phenomena visit us at the Jackson County History Museum on the Fairgrounds. One will discover countless stories of children - from infants to teens, literally plucked from the streets of New York where they were sleeping in alleys and eating from garbage cans.

Browse through the many books written on the subject, some true stories, others fictional. Some heart-warming - and others heart-wrenching. Read the newspaper articles of the day expressing the excitement over the arrival of the trains. See vintage photos of the Decker House, the historic 1875 hotel where the children were taken to change into their “best suit of clothes” and of the picturesque Congregational Church built in the 1860s where the children were presented to the public who had come with the intention of taking one or more children into their homes. View videos of Orphan Train Riders, interviewed as adults and listen to their stories in their own words.


If you are one of the many thousands who have discovered an Orphan Train Rider among your ancestors, search through our database. You are welcome to peruse the hundreds of files in the Iowa Orphan Train Research Center, copy any information you might find, and please share with us, facts, photos and stories that you may have in your possession.

Recently, the Jackson County Historical Society accepted the responsibility of caring for the research and files of Madonna Harms, thus becoming the Iowa Orphan Train Research Center. Elaine Mercado, an Historical Society member sitting on the Resident Scholar and Artist Board accepted the title of archivist, and has worked tirelessly, organizing the hundreds of records, and entering the information into a searchable database.

In June of 2015, a local columnist, Sheri Melvold, wrote an article for “Our Iowa Magazine” on the Iowa Orphan Train Riders. Since, over 100 additional files have been added to the original repository by family members sharing their stories of orphan train riders, by follow-up articles in “Our Iowa” or from old newspaper articles. 

Orphan Train Stop Maquoketa, IA

Travelers stopped at the Decker House

This Church served as a pickup point


To find out more information please feel free to contact us or if you have questions we can be reached by writing to the Jackson County Historical Society, P. O. Box 1245, Maquoketa, Iowa 52060, attention Iowa Orphan Train or by emailing her at