2013-01-17 / Columns

News & Reviews

By Edward F. Keller, D.D.S.

Orphan Trains

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” These compassionate words on the Statue of Liberty in New York, on Ellis Island, begged landstarved European immigrants to come and populate a developing new America in the 1880s. And they came by the millions.

New York City became horribly overpopulated with jobless, poor and homeless people. Children roamed the streets and lanes, beneath bridges and in open lots, begging for food and a place to sleep. They were called streets rats. Garbage overflowed into the littered malodorous streets. Police and the Children’s Aid Society housed them in orphanages and prisons. Hospitals placed cribs on their doorsteps to avoid abandoned newborns from being placed on the bare steps. But there were just too many children.

At this time, all of the western United States was severely underpopulated. Settlers created a need for workers to develop the land and businesses in the developing towns and farms. Children by the thousands were rounded up on the streets of New York, washed and dressed up and put on orphan trains. Post offices in towns west were notified prior to their arrival. Townspeople gathered at railroad stations and courthouses where the children were displayed, and took the ones they wanted. Then the train would move on to the next town and so on until all the children were taken. The children worked for their adoptive family on farms,restaurants, retail businesses, kitchen help and washer women. From 1850 until 1928 200,000 orphan train placements were made.

North Dakota received its share of these children. To name a few: Ella Dana Breiner,Helen Day Brigl and Eva Scibek Wirtz arrived in Mandan in 1918… Dorothy Brown Friesz and Mary Ladduck arrived in Dickinson in 1920… Joseph and Caroline Thompson came to Towner and were adopted by Adrien and Catherine Meier in 1905… Andrew H. Burke was orphan trained to Indiana at the age of nine. Later in his life he found his way to North Dakota and became our state governor in 1891.

Father Elwood Cassedy grew up in Jersey City, N.J., and witnessed these children on the streets of New York in the 1920s. He was deeply moved by their plight and when he came to North Dakota in 1944, he fulfilled his dream to some day helping needy children. He founded Home on the Range in Sentinel Butte in 1948.

In September 1998 the 37th annual Orphan Train Reunion was held in Little Falls, Minn. Participants in the unique reunion came from Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and North Dakota. They ranged in age from 70-90. Orphan trains ceased in 1929. When I came to Dickinson in 1955 I met Mary Ladduck Schwartzbauer. Mary and her husband, Mr. Schwartzbauer and their two boys lived on North Highway 22.

Till next time.

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