FOLEY - September 27th, 1890 – Tommy O’Rourke goes missing!

It’s always scary when children go missing. Children need protecting, and stories about them being lost and alone touch everyone’s heartstrings. It seems that communities pull together when something like this happens today, and it was no different when five-year-old Tommy O’Rourke went missing 120+ years ago.

Tommy was from Montana. He and his family were visiting O’Rourke relatives in Foley, Minnesota in the fall of 1890. On Saturday, September 27th, the men of his family were harvesting some fields near the O’Rourke home. Tommy went with and was playing in the hayfield while the men worked. As five-year-olds are wont to do, Tommy wandered away from the men. When they realized that the child was no longer with them, they yelled and searched around for him, but they couldn’t find him. The little boy was nowhere to be found!

A large group of neighbors and friends continued to search over the next few days. By Tuesday (3 days lost) there were over 100 people searching the woods. The next day there were reportedly 150 people searching for Tommy. All the workers from the Foley Lumber Miller joined in the search. Theories about what might have happened to the boy circulated among the search parties: perhaps he was smothered in a haystack the men were building as they harvested the hay field; maybe he fell into a stream; was he kidnapped by some straggling members of Chippewa Indians? The most likely theory that people seemed to agree on the most was that little Tommy wandered off into the woods, got tired out, and laid down to die. But this last theory didn’t stop the search parties! The newspapers reported “It is feared that the boy has perished before this time, but if he is alive, he will probably soon be found, as the search is now conducted systematically.” (St. Cloud Times, 1 Oct 1890)

Yet Tommy was still not found! After he’d been missing a week, the Great Northern Railroad offered to donate the use of a special train to take searchers from St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids out to Foley to conduct one last massive search on Sunday, October 5th. The day before, the St. Cloud Daily Times announced that the train would be leaving at 6:30 am, and return at 5pm, and anyone wishing to help with the search could ride for free. “It is now one week since the boy was lost and if he was not kidnapped he has perished long before this. If the remains are not found this will preclude the possibility that the lad perished in the woods and will establish the abduction theory for a certainty.” (St. Cloud Daily Times, 4 Oct 1890)

125 St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids citizens boarded the train on Sunday, October 5th to ride out to Foley and help with the search. There they joined the large group of Foley searchers, separated into squads, and were sent out in all directions to sweep the area. One group, consisting of Tommy’s cousin Mike O’Rourke and 11 other men, headed south and reached the railroad tracks after 1 mile. Little searching had been conducted south of the tracks, under the theory that if Tommy reached the tracks, surely he would walk along them and not cross over them. This small party decided to trek on past the tracks and, about a half mile further, one of the men called out to “stop!” He said he thought he heard someone crying. All at once, the men heard the sound again and ran towards it. In the middle of a meadow, sitting on a log crying, they found Tommy!

Tommy was frightened when he saw the men running towards him, but when he saw his cousin he asked, “Where’s momma?” Mike picked him up and carried him back to the station, where everyone was overjoyed and in disbelief that he was alive! He was weak, and very hungry after 8 days alone in the woods, but he was ok!

When things settled down and he was able to tell his story, Tommy said that he heard men calling the first night, but he ran and hid because he was afraid of the Indians. Cranberries were found in his pockets, which is probably what kept him alive. “They’re awful sour. If you don’t believe it just taste one. I thought it was about fifteen weeks since I saw home.” (St. Cloud Times, 9 Oct 1890). In talking with his father, he said “I called for you the first night, pop, but you did not come, and by and by I lay down and went to sleep.” He also said that he didn’t follow the railroad track because he had been told never to walk on it. After a little thoughtful silence, he said “Pop, this is the last time I am coming to visit Uncle Mike; when he wants to see me again he’ll have to come to Montana.” (St. Cloud Journal-Press, 9 Oct 1890).

Thanks to Sarah Warmka and the Stearns History Museum for their help with our series, “This Date In Central Minnesota History” on WJON.