Records fill in Orphan Train riders’ stories

John Schontz, retired attorney and rail historian, works with other fans and historians around the country to determine likely itineraries for Orphan Train riders. Riders or their family members are asked to fill out a questionnaire which is used to pin down the most likely route riders took to their new homes.

John Schontz, retired attorney and rail historian, works with other fans and historians around the country to determine likely itineraries for Orphan Train riders. Riders or their family members are asked to fill out a questionnaire which is used to pin down the most likely route riders took to their new homes.

by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer

The Orphan Trains of New York transported approximately 300,000 children west from New York City from the mid 1800s to 1929. Close to 100,000 children were transported in Canada.

Orphan Train riders gather every year at various locations around the Midwest, an event which is often hosted by the Sisters of St. Francis in Little Falls. The 53rd reunion was held Sat., Oct. 5 in St. Francis Hall.

Riders, family members and friends shared stories and asked questions during a day of camaraderie, discovery and friendship.

The day’s program featured a short business meeting followed by entertainment by Phil Lancaster and Alison Moore of Austin, Tex. They have traveled the country extensively performing Riders of the Orphan Train, a multi-media program combining live music, a video montage with archival photographs and interviews of survivors, and a dramatic reading of the 2012 novel “Riders on the Orphan Train” by Alison Moore.

This doll wears authentic Orphan Train rider clothing, including a name tag worn by Agnes Chambers “Pat” Thiessen. Pat’s photo and the shoes she wore when she arrived in Crookston are also shown.

This doll wears authentic Orphan Train rider clothing, including a name tag worn by Agnes Chambers “Pat” Thiessen. Pat’s photo and the shoes she wore when she arrived in Crookston are also shown.

Today, there are fewer than 50 Orphan Train riders living, five of them from Minnesota. Many of the people attending the meeting are children and grandchildren of riders.

“We estimated that about 100 people attended,” said Renée Wendiger, Orphan Train Riders of Minnesota president and daughter of rider Sophia Kaminsky. “More than half of them were there for the first time. Grandchildren of riders are becoming more interested in their family tree. It was just awesome.”

One of the first-time attendees was Rob Kolosky, who travelled from Maryland. He is unique among Orphan Train families in that two of his ancestors were riders.

“My grandfather Basil Kolosky rode to Georgetown and my great-grandfather Harry Lee rode to Pipestone,” he said. “Harry Lee’s daughter, Eva, married Basil.”

Wendiger has been attending Orphan Train reunions with her mother since she was 10.

“I found other children’s stories fascinating and I couldn’t wait to go with my mother to more reunions,” she said.

In about 1990, she started giving Orphan Train talks. She spent years doing more research and her book “Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York” was published this year.

For many years, Orphan Train riders were told that their records in New York had burned. Those yearning to know more about their origins were left wondering.

In recent years, riders and their descendants have been able to access their entire files on record with either the New York Aid Society or the New York Foundling Hospital. Requests must be made for “full microfilm records.”

Just this year, another piece of a large puzzle was added when retired attorney and rail historian John Schontz of Harlowton, Mont. ran across a mention of the Orphan Trains.

“I had never heard of this before,” he said.

“John called me to ask if there was a connection between the Milwaukee Road and the Orphan Trains,” Wendiger said.

The answer was an emphatic “yes.”

Schontz and another eight or so rail hobbyists from various Yahoo railroad groups pool their resources and knowledge to draw up itineraries for riders.

As they delved deeper into Orphan Train history, they discovered a whole researched saga that had virtually no information about the railroad’s part in the story.

“There are two museums in the United States involved in the process — the Upper Musselshell Historic Society in Harlowton and the Lake States Railway Historical Association in Baraboo, Wis..,” he said.

The first itinerary was completed in June, for Wendiger’s mother.

“Her birth certificate has never been located,” Wendiger said. “For my mother to see the journey route was almost the next best thing — it gave her a sense of identity. We can’t imagine that because we’ve grown up having that identity. It’s absolutely priceless to have (the itinerary).”

“Using old railroad timetables, applying a dash of sending agency history and digging into the scraps of information and family lore from a rider, we are able to outline the trip a rider made west with 97 percent bulletproof accuracy,” said Schontz.

He and the other members of Project Orphan Train Riders compiled a questionnaire which riders and their families are asked to fill out. Questions range from, “What is the name/age/city of the rider?” and “What time of day did he/she get off the train?” to “What does he/she remember eating on the trip?”

“It is not meant to be intimidating,” Schontz said. “People should just answer as many questions as they are able. It’s meant to stimulate memories and stories. We use fragments to recreate the entire pie.”

Wendiger and her family had wondered “forever” about a piece of paper that had been pinned inside her mother’s coat when she rode the train. It said “L west 83.”

“That was part of her mom’s train schedule and helped us with the itinerary,” said Schontz. “Another rider remembered being in a horse and buggy in Chicago, which told us exactly which train she had ridden into Chicago and which station she left from.”

But the rail historians were not quite anticipating the reaction they’ve seen by riders and their families.

“We’ve all been surprised by the emotional reactions of the people receiving the (itinerary) letter,” he said. “It really makes an impact.”

There are usually three to four museum people involved in an itinerary, and depending on who is available and online at the same time, “it can go very quickly — we can put one together in one night,” Schontz said. “Sometimes it can take as much as a month. Our slogan is, ‘Putting the Train back in Orphan Train.’ We have yet to run across an itinerary we could not do.”

Not every rider had a trouble-free life. Wendiger’s mother was assigned to three different homes, finally ending up with an older widow who didn’t provide any love or even some of the material necessities of life.

“She just amazes our family. She certainly could have grown up bitter but she didn’t,” Wendiger said. “People in the community took her under their wings. They bought her shoes; she got her pats on the head and hugs from them.”

By contrast, Lenore Moulzoff’s mother had a very good life. She rode to Tintah as a two-year-old, but was sick with pneumonia when she arrived.

“Her new family was very good to her; she was an only child,” she said.

Moulzoff’s sister has done most of the genealogy research, finding their mother’s birth certificate and other information.

“I go to the reunions every year,” said Moulzoff. “It’s fun to meet people, and see them again. It’s very interesting.”

Moulzoff’s brother makes wood trucks and other items for the event’s silent auction.

As Wendiger travels to New York City for a book tour, she anticipates visiting Grand Central Station, the last place her mother was in New York.

“I will be imagining my mother’s little feet crossing that great expanse to board her train,” Wendiger said. “Riders have said not to let their stories be forgotten. That’s what this is about.”

For more information, call Wendiger at (507) 794-7835 or email Schontz at orphantrainrail@outlook.com.

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