Orphan Trains were precursor to child foster system

An undated photo of an Orphan Train which stopped in Wahpeton, North Dakota.

An estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children were placed with families throughout the United States and Canada during the Orphan Train Movement from 1854 to 1929. The majority of these children lived in New York City and found themselves destitute for a number of reasons.

Mass immigration to America between 1841 and 1860 brought more than 4.3 million people to the country. Many immigrants left their homelands because of famines, poor harvests, political unrest and revolutions. Agents of steamship lines, along with railroad companies, attracted thousands to the United States by describing it as the “land of opportunity” and “land of a second chance,” according to the National Orphan Train Complex, a museum and research center in Kansas dedicated to the preservation of the stories and artifacts of those who were part of the Orphan Train Movement.

Laborers came for the factories, tenants were available for land out west and often chaos erupted when housing for young families became a problem.

Port cities became overcrowded with tenements often housing 10 or more people to one room. Jobs eventually dried up and labor was cheap, food became scarce and many men were killed in accidents in the workplace and out at sea. Without extended family members to assist, young families fell apart, with children as young as 6 working to help support their siblings and parents. Unsanitary living conditions often led to early deaths for overworked mothers, which left their children orphaned.

An organization was created in 1853 by Charles Loring Brace and a group of like-minded businessmen who wanted to help the neglected children of New York City. The Children’s Aid Society was formed and led to the first “free-home-placing-out” system, sending more than 200,000 children during the next 75 years out west to live with other families in rural America. This was the beginning of the modern-day foster care program.

One of those Orphan Train children, Carmella (Caputo Schend) Keaveny, became the mother of local resident Jeanne Putnam, Tintah, Minnesota.

“Mom always said her biological mother loved her enough to give her a better life,” Putnam said.

Her grandmother was an unwed mother who placed Carmella, at just 10 days old, with the New York Foundling Home, an orphanage in New York City. The organization had a bassinet in which mothers could leave their babies, no questions asked. They also had the option of filling out an informational form about the baby’s family.

The way in which children were placed with prospective families depended on which orphanage they came from. At the Foundling Home, run by nuns, a priest went out along the train stops in advance of the children’s trip across the country, and connected with local churches to inquire if any of their parishioners would want to take in a child.

The priest visited Tintah, Minnesota, and visited with Father Hoffman, Putnam explained, he knew of a couple, married for 10 years, who desperately wanted a child. The couple, Mary and Peter Schend, were told about baby Carmella, now 2 years of age, who had Italian parents. The Schends agreed to take in this child as their own.

Putnam said a nun or other adult typically traveled along with the children on the Orphan Trains and delivered the child to the prospective parents. An early version of a social worker would visit the child and their family annually after the placement to ensure it was a good fit and they could remove the child at any time if it wasn’t working out. Eventually, the children would be adopted by the couples, which could be after years of living together as a family.

Orphans at the Children’s Aid Society were placed a bit differently, though. Putnam explained that advertisements and notices were posted along the train routes in advance, announcing that children would be arriving at the stops on particular days and anyone interested in taking in a child should be there that day. Children were brought out onto the train platforms and examined by prospective parents at each stop. Some were chosen and the rest got back onto the train, hoping for a new family at the next stop.

It’s difficult to imagine how devastating that must have been for those children, Putnam said.

“Can you imagine, not being picked?” she asked.

Not every story recounted by the Orphan Train Riders included happy experiences.

Putnam’s mother was lucky, she said, and was treated like a queen by her adoptive parents. She was educated and grew up to earn a master’s degree and become a teacher.

“I think what made the difference for mom was the orphanage she came from,” Putnam said.

Putnam’s mother eventually connected with others who were orphans from the Foundling Home.

“In 1960, my mom and this local lady, Mary (Laible) Buscher were talking and discovered they were both adopted, both came from the same orphanage and were both on the Orphan Trains. Mary ended up in Nebraska and then married someone from here,” Putnam said. “Mary knew Marie (McGoldrick Ruhr) Lenzmeier, also an Orphan Train Rider.”

The three women decided to hold a gathering of Foundling Home orphans and ran newspaper ads nationwide. On July 1, 1961, the first reunion was held in Wahpeton, where nine individuals attended. Each year, more people attended.

2010 marked the reunion’s 50th year, which had by then been moved to Little Falls, Minnesota. Although the three women who started the reunions are no longer with us, their children and grandchildren continue to attend the yearly reunions. Putnam said she thinks there are only four former Foundling Home orphans left in Minnesota.

A 55-year celebration of Orphan Train Riders is planned for Oct. 3 in Little Falls, Minnesota, according to the Orphan Train Riders of Minnesota website.

Two former Orphan Train Riders went on to become state governors. Andrew Burke went to live with a farmer in Indiana when he was 8. His mother died during his birth and his father died four years later. He was placed under the care of the Children’s Aid Society and ran away at the age of 12. He joined the Civil War as a drummer boy for the 75th Indiana Volunteers. In 1880 went to Casselton, North Dakota, to work as a banker and in 1890 was elected governor of North Dakota.

John Brady, who rode the same Orphan Train, grew up to become Alaska’s executive governor for three terms.

Putnam said the Orphan Trains are such a big part of American history, she’s surprised the information isn’t included in school history books or curriculums.

“It’s our heritage,” she said.

To learn more about the Orphan Trains, visit http://www.orphantrainridersofminnesota.com.

Putnam, who recently spoke about the Orphan Train during an afternoon tea at Antoinette’s On the River in Wahpeton, will give another presentation Sunday, March 8 at the same location. Call Antoinette’s for more information at 701-597-0444.

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