From the 1850s to the 1920s, there was a massive migration of children in America. More than 250,000 orphans, mostly from big east coast cities, were sent by train to the towns and farms of the Midwest.
Thousands came to Minnesota to start a new life with families they had never met. Some were matched with families ahead of time. Others were paraded in front of crowds and chosen by families on the spot.
Many pairings took place at St. Paul's Union Depot. This Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, the newly renovated depot will host a multi-media performance about the children who rode the "orphan trains," featuring writer Alison Moore and musician Phil Lancaster.
All Things Considered Host Tom Crann talked with Moore about the history of those trains.
• Click on the full slideshow above to see some of the children who traveled on the "orphan trains."
TOM CRANN: Were all the children riding these orphan trains pre-matched with parents?
ALLISON MOORE: Only the children that came from the New York Foundling Hospital. These were Catholic children matched with Catholic families...They told those children, "You are going to your real parents. You have just been here in New York for a little while, but now you're going home."
CRANN: And if they weren't pre-matched, what was the process like? When they got off in St. Paul, did the Children know they would get a family?
MOORE: The Children's Aid Society, which was more of a free-for-all, actually began what we call the "placing out" system. Their system was merely to post handbills two weeks before hand, or an article in the newspaper. People interested would show up on the platform to meet the train. Children would be lined up and chosen at random from a line.
CRANN: Wow. In our age, that seems impossible to believe.
MOORE: It does. Especially since many siblings were separated that way.
CRANN: What was going on out east where there were so many orphans that they were able to ship them like this?
MOORE: One big reason was Ireland. The great potato famine. So many people were coming into New York destitute and ill. There was an estimated 30,000 homeless children living on the streets in the mid-1800s.
CRANN: I'm wodering if the interest in taking in the children was greater here in the Twin Cities or in this area for any reason.
MOORE: I think a great number of the children from the Foundling Hospital came to this area. And so I'm having to guess that there was a very strong Catholic connection here. The priest would have been contacted by the Sisters of Charity in New York saying, "Find people in your parish who would be willing to take a child. Interview them. Make sure that they are of sound character and that they will promise to raise them Catholic."
CRANN: From your research, take us to Union Depot or another place like it on a day when one of these trains would have arrived. What must it have been like?
MOORE: Pandemonium, I would think. Certainly you could imagine the confusion of the children, and the matrons who looked after them on the train, trying to herd them all into a space where they could be orderly, and cleaned up and looked at.
And then imagine an entire station full of people going to work or going home and some people knowing about these children coming, but many people just being attracted by the crowd that surrounded them. We have heard many stories of people who say, "I didn't know the train was coming. I just went over to see what was going on and I ended up taking two children home."
CRANN: That would happen?
MOORE: It would happen.
CRANN: I imagine for some children who weren't matched well — or at all — that these stories weren't all happy.
MOORE: There's no way they could have been. It went on for too long. I tell people it's like foster care today. What are the odds there? You're going into the homes of strangers.
The people who started this movement were hoping for the best and sometimes the best did happen, I think certainly in the situations where people who were childless came to find a child they cherished. And I've met orphan train riders themselves who said things like, "My life began the day I stepped off that train because the people who took me, chose me.
CRANN: What do you think the legacy of the orphan trains is?
MOORE: I think that a society is often judged — or should be judged — by how the children are treated and by what is done with unwanted populations. And I think we will be judged by this now that the stories are coming out. We can say, "Well, it was the only thing going at the time," or "It may have been the best thing." But it was certainly a difficult journey. [The train organizers] believed that the ends justified the means. I think that's something we still do in America.
Note: The "Riders on the Orphan Train" presentations at Union Depot are both sold out. The performers will also make a presentation at the 53rd annual Orphan Train Conference at the St. Francis Center in Little Falls, Minn. on Saturday, Oct. 5.