By Kaily Carson, Former Curator
The story of the National Orphan Train Complex really begins with the story of the Orphan Train itself, which began in 1854 and carried orphaned and destitute children and impoverished adults from the east coast into the West to find a new life. This resettlement system continued through the Civil War and World War I, finally ending in 1929. And although that’s when the trains stopped running, it certainly wasn’t the last time anyone would hear about them. In 1986, Mary Ellen Johnson worked for the Washington County History Book project in Arkansas. One day she came across a story about two siblings who traveled via orphan train to Arkansas and was immediately intrigued. By the end of the year she was so invested in the orphan train movement that she founded the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America (OTHSA), which was officially incorporated in 1987. As soon as the society started they began receiving requests for information about orphan train riders. In 1988, they held the first reunion of orphan train riders with over 100 people in attendance. In 1989 an episode of Unsolved Mysteries featuring an orphan train rider’s search for her brother resulted in a flood of interest in the orphan train movement, and OTHSA took off. Until 2003, Mary Ellen and other members of OTHSA collected information and artifacts from orphan train riders with the goal of one day founding a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the movement.
Meanwhile, a group of people in Concordia were interested in founding an orphan train museum. They organized in 2000, calling themselves the Railroad Depot/Orphan Train Museum committee, and operated under Cloud County Community College. Then, in 2001, when Beth Carlgren Whisler donated the 1917 Union Pacific Depot to the College for use by the committee, things really took off. The group renamed themselves the Orphan Train Depot Project, and set out to build their museum. Then, in 2002, OTHSA started looking for a home for their archives. The Orphan Train Depot Project began campaigning for the archives to be moved to Concordia, and, in March of 2003, OTHSA announced that we had been chosen. In May, the depot was added to the National Register of Historic Places and the organization was renamed the National Orphan Train Complex. In June, Concordia hosted our first Orphan Train Celebration. The next year, the exterior renovation of the depot was completed, and Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad sold the land around the depot that allowed the museum to expand beyond the historic depot. And expand we have! In 2005, Robert and Wanda Morgan donated the money that allowed for the construction of the Morgan-Dowell Welcome Center, which was completed two years later, in 2007. On September 15, 2007, the National Orphan Train Complex held our grand opening and becoming one of only two orphan train museums in the country.
Before the museum officially opened, we acquired an antique passenger car. For many years we worked to fundraise and restore the train car, which came to be called the Legend. Finally, in 2015, it was completed, and in 2018, the Jones Education Station opened. The Legend serves as an interactive exhibit providing our visitors with an opportunity to image what it was like for these children to travel thousands of miles in search of a new home. In 2015, the city approached us with a proposal to rebrand Concordia as the Orphan Train Town. Part of this proposal included the suggestion that we should consider placing statues of orphan train riders around town. We thought that idea was wonderful, and in 2016, our first community statue was unveiled at the Broadway Plaza. Since then, we have added 33 more statues, and 3 more will be unveiled in September. By the end of the year we will have 36 statues placed around the community, and 7 at the Orphan Train Complex, bringing our number of total statues to 43.
Today we continue to collect and preserve the history of the orphan train movement. We house files on over 6,000 orphan train riders and hundreds of unique objects owned by orphan train riders, their families, and other individuals and agencies involved in the movement. Each day we receive new requests for information about orphan train riders from their descendants, and each year we host thousands of visitors from across the country. In 2019, we had over 5,000 visitors from 48 states. Occasionally, we even get international visitors from places like England, Canada, Colombia, Spain, and more. We are proud to serve Concordia, Cloud County, descendants of orphan train riders, educators, and students, and thank our wonderful community for the outpouring of support that began in 2000 and hasn’t ceased since.