hobo teenagers -- 10/04/17

Today's selection -- from The Great Railroad Revolution by Christian Wolmar. The two predominant eras for hoboes -- the common slang term for migrant laborers, especially those who illegally traveled on trains -- were the years after the Civil War and the years of the Great Depression:

"It was the ... suspicion and dislike of the railroad companies that led to the romanticization of the hoboes who jumped freight trains and trav­eled free. Like train robbers, they enjoyed a measure of public support be­cause they were perceived as getting one over on rapacious corporations who saw fit to hand out huge numbers of free passes to VIPs, especially politicians, who might be useful to them and were contemptuously known as 'deadheads' or 'fare beaters.' The phenomenon of hoboes jumping trains had its roots in the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, when large numbers of rootless men traveled the country with little clear purpose. Some were tramps, living life permanently on the road and never seeking work, but most men jumped trains in order to seek work or a new life, most commonly out west. It was a precarious way to travel. If possible, they boarded the trains at stations or freight sidings, but sometimes they hopped on trains trundling slowly through towns, running the obvious risk of being dragged underneath. There was a constant game of cat and
mouse between the train conductors and the hoboes, who rode anywhere on the train where they could keep out of view of the crew.

Two hobos walking along railroad tracks
after being put off a train. One is carrying a bindle.

"The most perilous hiding place was on top of the cars, where falling asleep could prove fatal, but it could be equally dangerous to ride between or underneath the cars. The lucky ones found an empty wagon or broke into one, which they raided for any food or portable valuables. They risked the wrath of the conductors, who, however, sometimes turned a blind eye to these free­loaders, not least because many of them were former railroad workers or, indeed, were seeking a job on the railroads. Many of the hoboes, of course, had a drinking problem, as did many railroad workers, especially the driv­ers. According to Dee Brown, 'Pioneer engineers on the Western railroads had a reputation for heavy drinking' as an antidote to the stresses of oper­ating trains in such dangerous conditions, with the risk of attacks by robbers, derailments caused by the poor track, or collisions with other lo­comotives or livestock. Passengers occasionally attributed particularly bumpy rides to the lack of sobriety of the train crew, and, although drink­ing was a fireable offense, the railroad companies often took a lenient atti­tude, recognizing the pressures of the job. ...

Men sharing a meal at a hobo jungle in 1895. (Via the Hobo Museum)

"There had been hoboes on the railroads ever since the American Civil War, but with the Depression the phenomenon increased exponentially. Moreover, it was not just adults but a vast horde of teenagers who were on the move, es­timated by Errol Lincoln Uys to number a quarter of a million in the 1930s: 'Often as young as thirteen, each one came from a different background, each left home to ride the rails for different reasons, and each had unique experiences.' They were part of an army, estimated at 1.5 million during the peak years of the early 1930s, who used the railroads to get around the country to seek work. They suffered a terrible toll. According to the Interstate Commerce Commission, in the decade to 1939 nearly twenty­-five thousand trespassers -- seven a day -- were killed and the same number injured, often losing a limb, on railroad property. Although not all of these would have been hoboes, a great proportion undoubtedly were, as jumping on and off moving trains was a hazardous business, belying the romantic notion of the life often presented in films and books. Hoboes, who have an annual convention every year in Britt, Iowa, distinguish themselves clearly from tramps and bums. Whereas hoboes travel and work, a tramp travels and begs, while a bum, who may or may not go on the road, simply drinks or takes drugs. The number was greatly reduced after the Second World War, partly by the greater affluence, but also by the conversion to diesels, which unlike steam locomotives do not have to stop for water, giving hoboes fewer opportunities to jump on and off trains. Hitchhiking for a while be­came their preferred mode of travel, and today greater security and containerization make jumping the rails far less common."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Christian Wolmar


The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America




Copyright 2012 by Christian Wolmar


205-206, 317-318
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