ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Orphan train riders share bond

ST. PAUL -- It was3:49 a.m. June 15, 1916, when orphan A17206 arrived at the train station in Winona, Minn. The 2-year-old girl with her name sewn in the hem of her dress was met by a couple who signed a receipt, promising to raise A17206 as a Ro...

ST. PAUL -- It was3:49 a.m. June 15, 1916, when orphan A17206 arrived at the train station in Winona, Minn.

The 2-year-old girl with her name sewn in the hem of her dress was met by a couple who signed a receipt, promising to raise A17206 as a Roman Catholic, send her to school and "give her all the advantages that we would give to a child of our own."

Nearly a century later, A17206 is now Helen Koscianski, a 93-year-old Winona resident and one of the few living riders of the orphan trains, part of a 75-year-long practice in which thousands of children abandoned in New York City slums and tenements were shipped by train to rural communities in the Midwest and the rest of the country.

From the mid-1800s to the eve of the Great Depression, orphan train children were placed with families who pre-selected them with an order form, specifying age, gender, hair and eye color. In other cases, trainloads of kids were assembled on stages, train platforms or town halls and examined by prospective parents, "conjuring the image of picking the best apple from a bin."

Children ended up in loving homes with childless couples or with families who had lost a child to scarlet fever. But sometimes the train children were separated from siblings because a family could not afford to adopt two children. Or they were chosen by families looking for free labor.

ADVERTISEMENT

Saturday, Koscianski and a handful of other surviving orphan train riders, now in their 90s, shared their experiences at a reunion in Little Falls, Minn.

It's the 47th annual meeting for what is known as the Minnesota Orphan TrainRiders and Friends, the oldest orphan train rider group in the nation. The event attracts riders, descendants of riders, writers and researchers interested in preserving the story of the nation's earliest form of child welfare.

"These kids were sent out on the train, not knowing where they were going," said Joan Prochaska, the secretary of the Minnesota group and the daughter of rider Helen Koscianski. "It's a history that not too many people know about."

The orphan train movement started with the formation of Children Aid Society in New York City, which helped neglected and abandoned children from the waves of European immigrants arriving in the United States during the 19th century and early 20th century. The first train of children sent by the society's founder, Charles Lorring Brace, went to families in Michigan in 1854.

Orphan trains originated in other cities besides New York, and riders were sent to most states in the country. Until the practice was prohibited by federal law in 1929, about 150,000 children were put on orphan trains, Johnson said.

Only about 150 riders are alive today, but she estimates there are at least 4 million descendants of orphan train children.

"Our train were all babies and 4- and 5-year-olds," said Pat Thiessen, a 91-year-old orphan train rider from Becker, Minn. As a 2-year-old, she was taken in by a family in Red Lake Falls who only spoke French, Thiessen said. "The parents I had were good people, very good people."

"They wanted a boy and a girl, and I happened to be the girl," said Mary Allendorf, a 92-year-old Hopkins resident, of the "wonderful" Jackson, Minn., family who took her from an orphan train when she was 2.

ADVERTISEMENT

Prochaska said her mother remembers being treated differently from the biological children in the family that took her in. She wasn't legally adopted, wasn't allowed to play with other children in the neighborhood and wasn't permitted to go to high school.

"She was treated more like a servant," Prochaska said.

"I was never legally adopted, but they were always very good to me," said Justina Bieganek, who was taken off the train by an Avon, Minn., family when she was 2.

Bieganek, now 95 and a Franciscan sister, said she initially resisted going to orphan train reunions.

"The stigma [of being an abandoned child] was still stuck in me," she said. But then she attended her first meeting in 1973.

"I thought, 'Oh my lands, what a glorious exchange of history,'" she said.

"I don't know what my life would've been without it," she said of the orphan trains.

"The consensus seems to be that it was a good thing for the time," Wendinger said. "Most of them ended up in good homes."

What To Read Next
The system crashed earlier this month, grounding flights across the U.S.