There's A Meeting for That

Annual Orphan Train Riders Celebration

The strange history of indigent and orphaned children from Eastern cities who were transported to Western farms in the early part of the 20th century is celebrated each year in Kansas.

Illustration by Carmen Segovia
Illustration by Carmen Segovia

The modern-day foster-care system in the United States dates back to the late 1920s. Before that, it was the Wild West for homeless and orphaned children — literally. From the mid-1850s to 1929, as many as 250,000 children from congested Eastern cities boarded “orphan trains” and were sent to live and work on farms in Western states. This chapter of American history is largely forgotten, but a Kansas-based group is trying to change that.

The National Orphan Train Complex (NOTC), which opened in a former Union-Pacific depot in Concordia, Kansas, in 2007, houses exhibits about the Orphan Train Movement as well as the Morgan-Dowell Research Center, where many important historical records on the relocation of children are accessible to the public. Each year, the Annual Orphan Train Riders Celebration brings both history buffs and the descendants of orphan-train riders to Kansas to learn more about the movement and its impact on American history.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUMAn early-bird cocktail reception at NOTC kicked off this year’s celebration. Curator Shaley K. George spoke about the cartoons, letters, and pictures dating from 1900 to 1917 that comprise the “The Progressive Era and Orphan Trains” exhibit currently on display at the museum.

ALL ABOARDThis year’s agenda included a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the latest addition to NOTC’s collection of historical artifacts: the Legend Train Car, a rare 1860s wooden passenger-train car.

HITTING THE BOOKSWith some attendees looking to find out whether their ancestors traveled west on orphan trains, NOTC founder Mary Ellen Johnson, author of several books on the Orphan Train Movement, led a session on how to use historical archives.

THE PLAY’S THE THINGThe unique character of the Orphan Train Movement makes it ripe for dramatization. Attendees at this year’s annual celebration were treated to a talk by Cathy Cassetta, whose play “Homeward Bound: An Orphan Train Journey” was performed by San Jose’s Tabard Theatre Company this fall.

Annual Orphan Train Riders Celebration
June 4–6, 2015
National Orphan Train Complex
Concordia, Kansas

Making All Stops

› Aprons: The Great American Coverup

› Orphan Train Riders in World War II

› The Riders/Descendants Speak

› Special viewings of segments about Orphan Train Riders that aired on ABC and CBS

Kate Mulcrone

Kate Mulcrone is digital editor of Convene.