Questions remain for orphan train survivors and descendants

An ad in an 1882 edition of the Albert Lea newspaper stated, “A company of boys from the Children’s Aid Society of New York City will arrive in Albert Lea on Friday, November 17, for the purpose of finding homes and employment with farmers and others. There will be a meeting for the distribution.”

An article in the November, 19, 1913 St. Cloud paper reported that 100 children from New York, ranging in ages from one to four years, would be distributed in Stearns County. (Pictured are Betty Murphy and Sister Justina Bieganek, both of whom were riders, Barb Noll, Gen Gustafson and Colleen Murphy. Staff photo by Joyce Moran)

Distributed?? Today, one sometimes hears about pumpkins being distributed … or, seedling trees. But children?

Such was the case, however, when, from 1854 to 1929, an estimated 200,000 children were transported by train from the Children’s Aid Society Orphanage and the New York Foundling Orphanage, both of New York City, bound for distribution to homes across the United States.

The children generally arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs. A cloth patch attached to their shirts contained their names. Some carried birth and Baptismal Certificates—some did not. Most did carry an indenture paper which legalized their adoption.

“The children went through the most traumatic experience of all,” said Renae Wendinger of Sleepy Eye, MN, the daughter of one who rode an orphan train—”the breaking of family ties.”

Wendinger was in Little Falls August 25 and 26, participating in the 40th annual reunion of Orphan Train Riders who came to Minnesota and nearby vicinities. The reunion took place, as it often has over the years, at the St. Francis Center.

“Some children went to good homes,” continued Wendinger. “Some did not. Some people just wanted a servant or someone to take care of them in their old age. This was not considered cruel because our country was still familiar with servants and slavery.”

Going on, Wendinger related that some children were legally adopted while others were not. And often, she said, siblings were not kept together because a family only wanted one child.

New social laws and child welfare laws put an end to the orphan trains. But, today, while most of the orphans have passed away, many are still alive. And they, along with their descendants, are often plagued with questions.

Betty Murphy—a rider of an orphan train—along with her daughter, Colleen, both of Minneapolis, were among those who attended the most recent reunion of the orphans in Little Falls. “We have mom’s birth name from her Baptismal Certificate that went with her,” explained Colleen, “but, we can’t find any more. She was assigned to a family in Fargo.”

Occasionally, Colleen will see a stranger on the street who has features similar to those of her family members. “You wonder,” she said. “I’ve even asked people if they had ties to New York, or if they were Irish.”

Also attending the local reunion were Gen Gustafson, from Hibbing, and her sister-in-law, Barb Noll of Richmond, MN. Gustafson’s mother, now passed away, came to Minnesota on an orphan train at the age of two. “Even though she accepted her adopted parents as her own, my mother often wondered about who she really was and where she came from,” said Gustafson. “Her little coat contained two names and so we’ve never been sure what her birth name actually was—Edgewater or Edgeworth. I can still remember her wondering about where her mother was, and if she needed help.”

Sister Justina Bieganek of the convent at St. Francis is a familiar face at the Minnesota Orphan Train Reunions. “I came on the train when I was one and a half years old,” she related. “My adopting parents were John and Mary Bieganek. They had four boys of their own. Then, Mary got sick with cancer. She told the boys, ‘Whichever one of you marries first will take care of Edith’—my name, then. Mary died when I was about five. After a couple of years, Joe married. Both he and his wife, Rose Deering, were so young. They first came to live with us. But, they became my new parents. And, they went on to have 14 children of their own, although two died in their early years. Oh yes, I became the chief baby-sitter.”

Edith Bieganek attended a nearby school through the eighth grade. With no high school nearby, she then stayed home and helped out her family. However, when she was 18, in 1929, she was able to enroll and board at St. Francis High School in Little Falls. Later that same year, she chose to stay with the nuns and become a nun herself.

Giving her thoughts about being a rider of an orphan train, Sister Bieganek said, “I was very devastated that I never knew my background. Then, in 1969, there was the first reunion of the Foundling Orphanage. I wrote ahead, asking for any information about myself. I was able to get my birth certificate, my Baptismal Certificate and my indenture papers. I can tell you, I felt that, at the time, my life was just beginning. Such a relief it was to see my father’s and mother’s names.”

Sister Bieganek also discovered that her father had been a seaman from New York, that her mother was born in Norway, that her parents had one other child, and that her father passed away shortly before she was born. “My mother had taken me to the orphanage when I was three weeks old,” added the nun. “She had written the reason as ‘her inability to care for the child.’ Perhaps, after my father died, she didn’t think she could care for two children, I don’t know—maybe she went back to Norway. No, I’ve never tried to find where my sibling might be.”

Other states also have orphan train reunions. However, according to Sister Bieganek, Minnesota and Nebraska have had the most. Wisconsin, she added, is currently planning on holding its first reunion.

And now, there is a national organization for the orphans and their families. Called the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc., it was started in 1986 by Mary Ellen Johnson of Springdale, AR.

“No, I’m not an orphan—or even a relative of an orphan,” she related as she addressed those attending the recent local meeting. “I’m just someone who is interested in this fascinating story.”

Since starting the society, Johnson has helped hundreds of the orphan train riders find their roots. She has also started a museum in Springdale of memorabilia from the orphans and articles from different states that tell about their arrivals. And, she has written a booklet called “The Never Ending Search,” which gives helpful information to those riders of the orphan trains, as well as their descendants, on how they might get data about their family history.

“Many of the orphans did very well,” concluded Wendinger. “Some became doctors and mayors. Two even became governors of their states—Alaska and North Dakota.”

Still, many of the orphans continue to be left with nagging thoughts—“Who am I? Where did I come from?”


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