After a lifetime of researching the subject and several years spent crafting the work itself, Renee Wendinger’s published book, “Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York,” paints a picture of New York City as a bustling port in the 19th century that served as America’s main point of entry for European immigrants. However, after many of these people arrived in the U.S., they faced difficult conditions and were not able to find employment due to the dramatic influx of laborers. Immigrants by the thousands crammed themselves into tenement housing, clamoring for employment. Dreams of America were dashed by the harsh reality of the streets, and families were forced by simple economics to give up their children. “Their parents’ suffering soon became their children’s,” Renee explained. "Newborns were handed off to churches, and mere youths were left to fend for themselves as newsboys or bootblacks. Times were challenging, but the truly visionary found ways to make a difference in those children's lives."
That’s where two charitable institutions, the New York Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital, stepped in, determined to help these young children. As the agencies cared for increasing numbers of abandoned infants, one of those people with vision was Charles Loring Brace who saw opportunities for the children. He knew that families in the western United States could take them in, offering them opportunities unheard of in the city.
Beginning in 1854, these two organizations sponsored Orphan Trains, which took these children out of the city and gave them to families throughout the U.S. Often the foster parents just wanted to help a child in need, while other times an extra pair of hands on the farm was greatly desired. Either way, these kids were taken off the streets and given food to eat and shelter over their heads. During the trains’ 75-year history, 200,000 children were transported from New York City to homes across America.“This is a phenomenal part of American history most people don’t know about,” Renee explained. “In fact, a lot of people have never heard of the orphan trains.”
Wendinger had a deep-seated interest in telling the factual story of how thousands of orphans, ranging up to young adults, were literally shipped out of New York City on trains bound for America's heartland and beyond during the 1800s and early 1900s. Hence, those trains became known as "orphan" trains. Renee’s mother Sophia, who is now 96 years old, is one of the few Orphan Train riders still alive today. Sent out by the New York Foundling Hospital, Sophia Kaminsky rode the Orphan Train to Minneapolis in 1917.
Renée is a speaker on the subject of the orphan trains and immigration experience offering a historical slide symposium to educators and schools, community and civic organizations, and libraries and historical centers. Contact her through the books website at http://www.theorphantrain.com.