LITTLE FALLS (AP) -- They share no blood relation, but a common experience makes them family.
For children who rode the so-called "orphan train" from New York to the Midwest in the 1920s, their annual reunion in central Minnesota remains a chance to recall the pain and joy of their journey.
"This is like a real family," said Sister Justina Bieganek, 90. She was 2 when she traveled to her new home in Holdingford on the orphan train.
From 1854 to 1929, thousands of orphaned and abandoned children rode trains from New York and other overly populated East Coast areas to the rural Midwest to find a home. Families ordered some of the children like merchandise from a catalog.
Other children had no arrangements before they stepped off the train. Families picked up the children either to love as one of their own or sometimes as an extra farmhand or maid.
Between 150,000 and 250,000 children traveled west on the trains. Today, some estimate about 200 of the riders are still alive. As time passed, the group that meets in Little Falls also dwindled.
"Thirteen is pretty good because there's not many of us left," Bieganek said. "We're becoming an endangered species."
Bieganek doesn't remember much about leaving New York or riding the train, but she does know that she had No. 41 pinned to her clothing. Her Holdingford family's order number was No. 41.
"They asked for a child with blue eyes and blond hair," she said. "And I'm what they got."
Like siblings, 86-year-old Irv Dobis delivered a friendly jab at 87-year-old Sophia Kral as they met Friday. Kral smiled and gave him a giant hug in the St. Francis Center. Others visited quietly in the basement cafeteria, telling their daughters and granddaughters about their experiences riding the trains.
At least 13 orphan train riders were expected by Saturday, the second day of the 42nd annual New York Orphan Train Riders Group reunion.
"They're like my brothers and sisters," Kral said. "This is where we're all like one another."
If one family member was an orphan train rider, then the whole family shares that experience, children and grandchildren of the riders said.
Kral's daughter, Renee Wendinger, started to trace her story because she loves genealogy. But tracing through records proved difficult.
"I'm here, but I have no birth certificate," Kral said.
Wendinger said she has used every clue to find what she can about her mother. The family was the second to be able to look at records compiled on some of the orphan train riders in New York.
As she looked, she found the name of Kral's mother. But her last name was illegible. No handwriting expert has been able to decipher the last name, Wendinger said.
The experience of riding the orphan train sometimes is something that only other riders can truly understand, said Joe Gould, 84. Gould rode the train to Crookston as a baby to be taken home by a Bemidji family.
"I come here to be able to see other people who went through the same thing," he said. "It was an experience."
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