Lilly Niehaus

Lilly Niehaus came to Waconia on the Orphan Train.

Seven years ago, I wrote an article about the Orphan Train and a little girl who was adopted into a family in Waconia. Her name was Lillian Niehaus.

The “Orphan Train” program operated from 1854 to 1929, transporting more than 150,000 orphaned children from New York City throughout the United States.

I have seen so many articles and books about how horrible the Orphan Train was, but in truth there were many families who waited with loving arms at our end of the train. To these families who had no children of their own, the Orphan Train was not only a blessing, it was a Godsend, bring a much wanted child. One whom they would love and cherish as their own. Lillian was one those stories.

Encouraged by my initial story, Lillian’s granddaughter Maureen Meier decided it was time to find out more about her grandmother. Recent scanning and access to previously off-limit documents and DNA testing proved more than rewarding. The rest of Lillian’s story is both heart-wrenching and heart-warming. It is one of those stories you will never forget.

Lillian was born Elizabeth Kenny in the Kings County Almshouse, Brooklyn, New York. An almshouse is a place where the poorest of the poor go. In old terms it would be also considered a “flophouse,” or today maybe a homeless shelter, only worse.

But, back in 1888, the conditions in New York City were beyond miserable. Photographer Jacob Riis was so touched by the misery he saw, he produced the book, “How the Other Half Lives.” The book opened people’s eyes to the horrors of New York City in the 1880s.

This is the misery that little Elizabeth Kenny was born into.

Lillian was born to an unwed mother named Mary Kenny and an unknown father. Mary stayed at the almshouse for three months following the birth of her daughter, so she turned Elizabeth over to the New York Foundling Hospital on March 25, 1885. The hospital didn’t ask for a birth date, but was told the child was three months old, and assigned the birthday of Christmas day, 1884. A birth certificate or adoption record has not been found.

Through DNA testing, Maureen was connected to Mary Sparks, who discovered they are connected via Lillian’s previously unknown father.

Further research narrowed the search for a father to two men, brothers with the last name of Cronin. DNA is being conducted with a potential relative in Ireland.

Lillian stayed in the care of the Foundling Hospital until the age of 4, when she was placed on the Orphan Train and sent to Minnesota. Her adoption was arraigned by the Rev. Dominic Florian, who served at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Waconia. He also arranged for several other children who were adopted by families in the area.

Gerhard Niehause of Waconia picked up Lillian and three other children from a train station in Minneapolis. Lillian recalled having siblings in New York and parents, even a grandmother, but the memories are believed to be that of other children at the hospital and the nuns who took care of her.

Being born to unwed parents was scandalous. The Niehauses, understanding this, told Lillian that she had been placed in the Foundling Hospital because her parents died in a traffic accident. A very kind thing to do, for their adopted daughter.

Mary Kenny died in 1900 at the age of 38 and is buried with the Gill family in Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn. It is not known how she is related to the family, but it is believed that Patrick Gill’s wife, formerly Catherine Kenny, is a relative.

Mary and her older sister Annie came to the United States as young women, about age 16, from Ballymahon Ireland. Maureen believes she has found Mary’s parents, James and Mary Hanley Kenny, and that they died months apart while the girls were an infant and a toddler. It is unknown who raised them, only that they immigrated to NYC along with a massive number of other Irish immigrants. The streets of NYC were not kind to the Irish, but life in Ireland was not any better.

History is not always kind, nor is it always pretty. Mary Kenny gave up her daughter. Not an easy task.

Many parents in NYC in the 1880s faced the same challenges. Research and history tell us that the Foundling Hospital was quite nice for its time, including a preschool.

In December, Maureen visited the Foundling Hospital. There she found heart-wrenching letters from parents who felt they had no choice but to give up their child. These letters were left for the children they could not care for and which are now available at the New York Historical Society, for the public to read.

Reading the letters is absolutely heartbreaking. Many a letter stated that the parents would try to come back for the children when they were able. Most never did.

Now you know the rest of the story.

Wendy Petersen-Biorn is executive director of the Carver County Historical Society.

Community Editor

Mark Olson, the Chaska and Chanhassen community editor who has worked in Carver County for 20 years, makes any excuse to write about local history. In his spare time, Mark enjoys perusing old books, watching blockbusters and taking Midwest road trips.

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