MN's surviving orphan train riders can't make the trip, but their journey still inspires

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The orphan trains stopped running more than 80 years ago, but their legacy rolls on.

A reunion in Little Falls on Saturday will be the 55th such Midwestern gathering of the Orphan Train Riders of New York.

Many historians consider the orphan trains a forerunner of the modern foster care system. For 75 years – ending in 1929 – they carried abandoned or orphaned children from tenements in New York City to families waiting for them in the Midwest.

Thousands of orphans arrived at Minnesota train stations over the years, many with their names or a number sewn into their clothing to help their new families identify them.

The Pioneer Press reports there are still four orphan train riders living in Minnesota, ranging in age from 98 to 103. None is able to make the trip to Little Falls this weekend but the newspaper spoke with one of them, 100-year-old Sophia Kaminsky Hillesheim-Kral, at a nursing home in Sleepy Eye.

Hillesheim-Kral's foster mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918. That led to her being placed with a widow in Springfield, Minnesota, who proved to be abusive. But Hillesheim-Kral tells the newspaper the kindnesses of neighboring families in southern Minnesota left an indelible impression.

Hilleshieim-Kral's daughter has written two books about the experiences of orphan train riders, the Pioneer Press says.

Several years ago, the Minnesota Women's Press profiled another of the orphan train riders, who was a 96-year-old nun living in a Little Falls convent at the time.

Saturday's reunion event in Little Falls will include dozens of descendants of riders, along with students and researchers, an organizer tells the Pioneer Press.

The National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas, is a museum and research center with much more on the legacy of the orphan trains.

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