Minnesota Orphan Train Riders of New York

Minnesota became the first state to host an official gathering of its orphan train riders and their families with an event that took place on July 1, 1961 with nine attendees. This event was organized by two women who discovered later in life that they had ridden the same orphan train to Minnesota as young children. This fall the Minnesota Orphan Train Riders of New York, the official Minnesota orphan train riders organization, will celebrate its 50th reunion, honoring the 11 surviving Minnesota riders and recognizing the many thousands of others who arrived in Minnesota during the Orphan Train Era. Adoptees Have Answers will also celebrate these amazing nonagenarians on Saturday, June 19, 2010, from 2:00 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Minnesota History Center (cosponsor). For more information about the event, contact Anne Johnson at 612-746-5122 or ajohnson@mnadopt.org

History of the (Minnesota) Orphan Train Riders of New York
Website: www.orphantrainridersof minnesota.com

In 1853 the United States began evaluation of railroad routes to the Pacific, sending mapping announcements to Europe and the rest of the world.

Praises went forth, inviting people to come to American and obtain “free land.” As a result, the United States received a large number of immigrants.

Steamship agents and railroad companies attracted the rest with descriptions of “the land of opportunity.” Port cities became overcrowded, with assorted jobs filled by cheap labor. New York City had the largest influx of immigrants. Many made long overland journeys, but countless others stayed in the city.

A host of urban ills, including poverty, disease, alcoholism, job competition, and lack of resources led to instability and desperation.

Sometimes families were left with little choice but to abandon their children to the city streets.

The New York Children’s Aid Society was under the auspices of the Brace Farm School, the Industrial Schools, and Newsboys Lodging Homes. Charles Loring Brace and friends founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853-54. Brace saw orphaned, half-orphaned, and runaway children become waifs of the city.

Envisioning new lives for these destitute youngsters, Brace devised a plan to send them away from overpopulated city streets to find family homes in the West. He believed the West had “many spare places at the table of life” and a wholesome atmosphere in which to raise children. This excellent plan was not totally satisfactory for all children. Some went to good homes, but others were instead mistreated. Upon arrival, children were grouped upon stages, on station platforms, in town halls, or on wooden boxes, and prospective parents were asked to choose a child by personal viewing.

Thus, the phrase put up for adoption became known. Boys may have had their muscles examined as potential farm laborers. Similarly, teeth, stature, and visible medical issues were considered.

The New York Foundling Hospital

In 1869 Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbons and the Sisters of Charity founded the New York Foundling Hospital. Crime seemed to follow poverty, and the most monstrous crime of all was infanticide. The Sisters were child savers, too, but reserved safekeeping to infants and young children.

The Foundling Hospital’s children usually aged between one and six years, rode on trains affectionately called “baby trains,” “mercy trains,” or “baby specials.” This organization sent nearly as many children west as did the Children’s Aid Society. The New York Foundling Hospital and the Children’s Aid Society were two of the largest East Coast agencies placing children in the West.

Indentured Application

The New York Foundling Hospital commissioned prospective parents to apply for a child in advance. Clergy and city officials announced the need for
family homes to local parishes and citizens. Prospective parents could specify the age, gender, hair and eye color they sought in a child.

The New York Foundling Hospital carried an indenture system formulating a contract requiring parents needed to clothe, educate, and provide financially for the child until the age of eighteen. The form essentially guaranteed room and board in exchange for labor. A child could be sent back to New York if placement
proved unsatisfactory. The expectation was that the contract could be dismissed in favor of adoption.

Seventy Five Years of Orphan Trains between 1854 and 1929 over 250,000 children from the urban East Coast, predominantly New York, were placed on what became known as “orphan trains.” This one-way trip was designed to relocate homeless, neglected, and abandoned children to points west across America. It was the largest mass migration of children to take place in American history.

Minnesota Reunions

Minnesota was the first state to carry out a gathering of Orphan Train Riders on July 1, 1961. Mary Buscher of Breckenridge, MN and Marie Lenzmeier of Wahpeton, ND discovered they were orphans from New York, and had traveled across the United States to find a new family home.

The women thought, “if there are two of us, how many more shells in the ocean can we find? Decidedly, the women placed an ad in several newspapers throughout the Midwest inviting others like themselves to a meeting at the Metropolitan Building in Wahpeton, ND. Nine individuals arrived to get acquainted and
exchanged life stories.

The group was unanimous in making the choice of subsequent meetings. The second meeting of Orphan Train Riders was held on June 16, 1962 in Wahpeton, ND. Thirty-five members were present. Letters arrived from
nearly every state in the United States expressing a connection to life as a foundling from New York. Mary Buscher (Breckenridge, MN) was elected president; Carmella Keaveny (Tintah, MN) was vice-president, and Marie Lenzmeier (Wahpeton, ND) secretary/treasurer.

And so the meetings continued, attendance grew, and a familiar family unit took shape yearly. The location of gatherings and choosing a name for the group often changed, and members competed for bringing their new found Orphan Train family to each attendee’s prospective city.

The group called themselves, Reunion of the orphans coming from the New York Foundling Hospital, New York Foundling Group, New York Foundling Orphans, and in 1997 entitled themselves as the Orphan Train Reunion.

The last name held until 2005 when the name changed to (Minnesota) Orphan Train Riders
from New York. The reunions are open to riders, descendants, friends and any interested persons who like to attend.

In 2010, Minnesota will mark their 50th Orphan Train Reunion. A conservative number of four million descendants originate from someone who was an Orphan Train Rider.

Today, approximately 140 Orphan Train Riders survive in the United States. c Renee Wendinger

1 Comment

  1. I have just recently heard about the Orphan Train Children, and the hardship they had to endure. And I have this crazy idea to write a book about the Orphan Train Children and all the horrible events that had to over come and many did not live. I’ve heard they lived in terrible, and abusive Asylum/Orphanges. That many children died by drinking poisioned milk. I guess I would like to write a book about the darker side of these children lives, and I was writing you to ask if you had any information or ideas. I would truly appericate any information you could help me with or direct me to someone who could.Thank you so muchCandy

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