Orphan Train Riders

Through stage productions, video and countless personal reflections most of us know something about the experiences of the Orphan Train Riders.  Beginning in 1854 and continuing until 1929  as many as 200,000 children were put on West-bound trains where they were sent to live – with mixed results – with new families in new homes.  The stories of these children, well recorded in numerous reports, are compelling.  Their descendents are estimated at over 2,000,000.

Thanks to committed individuals including an indefatigable Orphan Train Rider, Sister Justina Bieganek, OSF, the stories of Minnesota’s orphan train children are reflected, recorded and retold with love and care.  And each fall Orphan Train Riders and their descendents gather at the St. Francis Center in Little Falls, Minnesota, to remember.  Midst hugs, tears, laughs, scrapbooks, performance and good food, the stories unfold in a warm and wonderful celebration of tough times, good times, lives lived and survival.

One good story begins in 1913 when a 22 month baby arrived in Avon, Minnesota on the Orphan Train where she was met by John and Mary Bieganet who knew her only as child No 41.  The little girl was given the name Edith Peterson.  That little girl, now a nonagenarian, picks up the story.  “In 1929,” she notes, “two good things happened — the Orphan Train stopped and I entered the Convent.”  To be sure, in 1929 the young Edith Peterson joined the Sisters of St. Francis Little Falls where she took the name Sister Justina.

Among her many commitments over the past decades Sister Justina has played a key role in keeping the stories of the Orphan Train Riders alive.  In July 1861 Minnesota was the first state to carry out a gathering of Orphan Train Riders.  It all started when two Orphan Train Riders from North Dakota discovered their common heritage.  They decided that “if there are two of us, how many more shells in the ocean can we find?”   Starting with an ad in area newspapers, the region’s Orphan Train Riders met, reached out, and created a tradition that continues today with an annual gathering at the Franciscan Center in Little Falls.

This year, Sister Justina and her colleagues share the day with special relish. On Saturday, October 2, 2010, families, friends and interested persons (including “interested persons” Suzanne Mahmoodi and me) will gather for the 50th Celebration of Orphan Train Riders of New York (the generic name for the Riders groups).  A special feature of this year’s reunion is presentation of The Story of the Orphan Train, a one-woman show created by professional actress Pippa White of One’s Company Productions.

Impossible as it is to capture the spirit of the reunion, there are many ways to share the story.  Sister Justina herself is profiled in print and has created a 40-minute DVD in which she shares her experience of riding the Orphan Train from New York to central Minnesota.  Information about that video is available through the Sisters of St. Francis (info@fslf.org).   Among the several websites devoted to the Orphan Train Riders are many that are state-specific,  maps, statistics, personal reflections, contacts and more.  There is also a great website offering quick links to scores of educational resources and projects.

The story of the Orphan Train Riders offers a close and clear reminder of our relatively recent history rich with challenges, choices and consequences.  Long-time historian of Minnesota’s Orphan Train Riders Renee Wendinger has created an excellent up-to-date collection of articles by and about the Orphan Train Riders replete with original newspaper clippings, details re. the railroad depots, geograhic distribution and more   For a list of Minnesota’s Orphan Train Riders, check here.  Many thanks to Sister Justina and to the many Orphan Train Riders and their progeny who tell the stories, whether replete with pain or happy memories, stories so far and yet so near.

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