Introduction to Hobo Information
I wasn't sure how to organize this information on hoboes. This web site is as much for me as for anyone else so I intend to put all of the scraps of knowledge that I uncover about graffiti into these pages. I know these entries are going to read like some bad high school book report. My primary objective is to record this information in one place so that I can summarize what has come before me and add to that body of knowledge with my research findings.
Hoboes: Wandering in America, 1870 – 1940. Richard Wormser. Walker & Company, New York. © 1994.
Richard Wormser set out a timeframe for the era of the hobo on page one of his book. He asserts that the era of the hobo spanned the years between the Civil War and World War II. The hoboes were born of the expansion of railroads and an Industrial Revolution in America. The railroads made it possible for freight and passengers to travel great distances and were an incredible advancement for America. I don’t think that these tremendous social advances are applied equally to all of the citizenry though. The hoboes worked to build the railroads and rode them westward and they were dispersed farther from their roots and families. Though wandering defines the hobo it also makes the hobo a victim of predatory forces in society. The impact of the railroads on the lives of hoboes reminded me of a paper that I had read on the Internet about the inception of modern graffiti. The History of New York City Graffiti by Willie Friedman describes the impact of the construction of the interstate highway system on the physical segregation of the urban poor, the growth of a segment dubbed the “inner city” and really the psychological effect of physical boundaries on the populous in these areas. I know these must seem like disparate topics but I think they are both examples of how the physical infrastructure of a country has led to the creation of a marginalized and maligned segment of the population.
Early wanderers were apprentices of various trades, newly released from their masters (or those that had just quit) and mountain men pushing westward ahead of pioneering settlers. At the end of the Civil War, soldiers joined the ranks of those wandering in search of work or to reconnect with their own humanity in an increasingly industrial post-war landscape. I think that the following passage found on page nine describes the cycle of work and travel well:
“Trains also carried hundreds of thousands of workers to fill the jobs the economic boom created. When their jobs ended or there was an economic depression, men and women roamed the country looking for work. These swings between good and hard times produced the hobo. By the end of the nineteenth century, it is estimated, more than a million men were on the road. Most of them were looking for work. The era of the hobo and the tramp was at its height.”
Within Wormser’s descriptions of the struggles of hoboes is information on tramps. What struck me about this information was the way he depicted these predatory interactions with a chilling bluntness. It made me pity the hobo. It is important to note that hoboes and tramps shared the same living and traveling spaces (Wormser 35). Both groups lived in jungles – make-shift, semi-permanent settlements often on the outskirts of established towns – and traveled by train. The difference between the two groups was their work ethic. The hoboes traveled the country in search of work. Some of them worked just enough to make enough money (their “stake”) to tide them over. The tramps largely conned and swindled people to make their stake, but sometimes they did resort to robbery and murder.
The world of the tramp, and the hobo to a great degree also, was largely a man’s world occupied by few women, with the exception of prostitutes. Homosexuality was common in this environment and that seems understandable. The evil and predatory component though was the luring of road kids into the life of the tramp under the pretext of adventure and riches. Older, experienced tramps (“wolfs” or “jockers”) typically lured young lonely men (“lambs”) into the life only to enslave the young man as the jocker’s “punk” (Wormser 55-56). The punk was expected to shave the jocker, wash his clothes, cook his food and beg for money and food. Sometimes the punk was also given a female nickname. The language used in our modern prison system to describe these same predatory interactions seems similar (http://dictionary.prisonwall.org). The only way out of this situation was to fight fiercely or for road kids to join together for safety in numbers (Wormser 58). It is interesting to note that Jack London writes of this predation on and reflexive camaraderie of road kids in his stories of his own tramping days collected under the title The Road.
Incidentally, there is a quote from a Chicago physician/hobo named Ben Reitman on page 11 that makes me wonder whether the definitions of hobo, tramp and bum aren’t just a part of society’s collective knowledge. Richard Wormser quotes Reitman as writing the following: ‘The hobo wanders and works. The tramp wanders but does not work and the bum neither wanders nor works.’ I think these definitions are even better than those that Daniel Leen attributes to Byron Fish.
As long as I am on the subject of definitions here is some information on the origins of the word hobo. A few proposed origins are listed below (Wormser 11):
- From the Latin “homo bonus” which means good man
- American version of the French word “haubois,” which actually means oboe but by way of its association with troubadours came to describe these medieval vagabonds
- The shortening of the greeting “Hello, brother” which is commonly exchanged between fellow wanderers
- Or from the job title “hoe-boy” – a farm laborer
A little information on the types of cars and hiding spots on the trains that were available to the hobo is provided as well (Wormser 22-24):
- Gondolas – open cars
- ‘side-door’ Pullmans
- boxcars – closed cars
- reefers – refrigerated cars
- the blind/blind baggage – platform of baggage or mail car of passenger train
- bumpers – small platform between cars
- decked rattlers (verb) – riding on the top of the freight car
- riding the rods – bar underneath passenger cars converted to a seat by using a ‘ticket’ (wood plank that hoboes carried to use as a seat)
Hoboes apparently hid themselves in the coal in coal cars and also among the cattle in cattle cars. Along that same vein, Daniel Leen warns modern-day hoboes that riding in automobiles and farm machinery in transport on trains is taboo and will certainly lead to jail time if caught.
Each type of railcar had its drawbacks it seems. Hoboes could be decapitated by the sudden closure of the side doors on boxcar or thrown out of the cars at high speeds. The cargo in the box could suddenly shift and crush a hobo as well. The reefer cars were cool in hot weather but they locked from the outside and hoboes are known to have frozen to death when trapped inside. The blind and bumpers were decent choices for riding but they were exposed areas and as such the first places that the police or other railroad employees would see riders.
Wormser also provides details about the survival of hoboes and tramps during wintertime (Wormser 91-93). He writes that some managed to ride out the season in shacks and huts which the hoboes and tramps constructed. Others spent the winters in the care and custody of a town’s sheriff. By far the most popular destination though was a large city and in particular, Chicago, the unofficial capital of the hobo world during the hay day of the hobo. Wormser writes that between 300,000 to 500,000 hoboes and tramps came to Chicago. This Midwestern city was a train-transportation and freight hub and so it became a great gathering place. Chicago itself was a magnet – a great attractor but it was truly decrepit in its social and physical structures along West Madison Street. “The streets were filled with houses of prostitution, saloons, pawnshops, opium dens, burlesque houses, and pornographic bookstores. Day and night, the area was packed with hoboes, bums and tramps, thieves and dope fiends, pimps and prostitutes, revolutionaries and anarchists, writers and journalists, tourists and students, missionaries and social workers” (Wormser 93).
As much as Chicago was a center of vice and debauchery for hoboes, tramps and bums it was also home to the movement for their betterment. Chicago physician Ben Reitman was the self-declared “King of the Hoboes” (Wormser 99 – 101). Reitman was active in many progressive causes such as free-speech, availability of birth control and workers rights (specifically his membership in the IWW – Industrial Workers of the World). His greatest passion was the fight to better the lives of hoboes. He held a much-publicized banquet for the hoboes, ran a hotel that housed and fed hoboes and he also created the Hobo College in Chicago. The Hobo College held a series of lectures, debates and concerts during the winter and offered food and shelter to attendees.
Two other institutions were active during this time: the Dil Pickle Club and Bughouse Square (Wormser 105). The later was an outdoor area in Washington Square where speakers presented their material from atop soapboxes. A hat was passed and the speaker earned a bit of money commensurate with his/her speaking skills. The Dil Pickle Club was a coffee shop near Bughouse Square that attracted many of Chicago’s great writers and movement leaders, movers and shakers in that era’s counterculture and black-market. The advancements of the hobo cause and the flourishing of new ideas movements described in these last few paragraphs took place in the first decades of the 1900’s. All of the activity and excitement couldn’t sustain itself though in the face of new forces at work in America as Wormser writes on page 106. An excerpt describing the end follows:
“The Dil Pickle Club, like the Hobo College and Bughouse Square, began to fade and change by the 1930s. The world of the hobo and the tramp was coming to an end. The factors that gave birth to it – the railroad and the need for migrant manual labor in seasonal jobs – were no longer the same. Two events had happened by the end of the 1920s that marked the end of the hobo world: the development of the automobile and the onset of the Great Depression.”
Employers began to look to a more stable source of man-power – the “rubber tramp”, a worker that could travel to and fro by automobile – and also mechanized means of performing repetitive work (Wormser 107). Prohibition also had a great impact on the hobo life. In many saloons lunch was free with the purchase of a drink and the shelter and warmth of the building itself was vital for the survival of so many hoboes, tramps and bums (Wormser 108-109). Hoboes who could travel the county finding the odd job here and there prior to the Great Depression found themselves in the company of businessmen and factory workers part of the horde of unemployed – over 16 million individuals by 1933 (Wormser 109).
As a sort of an aside in my summary is the inclusion of this information on the Industrial Workers of the World or as they came to be known, the Wobblies. This topic holds some local interest here in Western Washington and in Centralia in particular. In Washington Square in Centralia there is a monument to the November 11, 1919 Armistice Day shootout between the local Wobblies and members of the American Legion. The Wobblies were defending their local office against the Legionnaires who had been part of an Armistice Day parade which passed the Wobblies’ Office (Kirk and Alexander 387). Four Legionnaires were eventually murdered in the melee. Wesley Everest, one of the Wobblies who was arrested for the murders, was taken from his jail cell and hanged by a group of vigilantes. Eleven other Wobblies had been arrested for the murders and they stood trial in Montesano and were convicted and sentenced to serve time at the Walla Walla penitentiary. The Wobblies eventually disbanded, but their fight for workers rights – which would have benefited the wandering hobo – was to be carried on by the C.I.O. (Wormser 90).
Richard Wormser also touches on the plight and perils of the teens – children really – that entered the throngs of unemployed Americans wandering and looking for work. He states that an estimated 200,000 teenage hoboes were on the road during the Depression. There is an interesting documentary that was broadcast as a segment of the PBS series The American Experience titled Riding the Rails. The film was produced, written and directed by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell (© 1997 Out of the Blue Production) and was presented by WBGH Boston Video. The video box says “Read the book Iron Memories: Riding the Rails in the Great Depression by Errol Lincoln Uys.” I think that the documentary portrays the hardships and motivations of the road kids very well. The movie makes vivid the trials and perils of this life on The Road, riding the rails.
The last subject that Wormser tackles is the comparison of today’s homeless to yesteryear’s hobo (Wormser 123). He makes the following valid observations:
- Today when people are unemployed they generally stay in their community
- Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicaid and welfare are part of today’s social safety-net
- There is less demand for seasonal labor – mechanization has transformed industries that once were man-power intensive
AUTHORS AND BOOKS MENTIONED IN THE TEXT (that I intend to look up, Wormser also includes a chapter-by-chapter bibliography at the end of the book)
Tom Kromer Waiting for Nothing
Willie Davis Autobiography of a Super Tramp
Josiah Flynt Tramping with Tramps
Jim Tully Beggars of Life
The Road by Jack London (1907)
Jack London: Novels and Social Writings. Volume arrangement, notes and chronology by Donald Pizer. The Library of America © 1982. The Road. Jack London. Originally published 1907. Dedicated to Josiah Flynt.
A GLOSSARY of tramp terminology based on this writing by JACK LONDON
light piece – spare changed begged on the street, p. 189
set down – a begged meal that is eaten at the provider’s dining table, p. 189
shack = brakeman, p. 202
blind baggage – mail cars without doors in the ends or end doors that are locked, the train employees can’t reach the hoboes or tramps riding here once the train is in motion, p. 205
musher – an itinerant fakir, opines that Klondike musher and hobo musher may be corruption of French march eons – to march, p. 222
throw/threw my feet – to hit the street, making the rounds begging, p. 220
side-door Pullman = boxcar, p. 230
gondola – flat car (pronounced with the 2nd syllable long and emphasized), p. 230
batter the drag – begging on the town’s main street, p. 257
Monica = nom-de-rails, name that hoboes assume or accept and use instead of their given names, p. 259
Chi – pronounced ‘shy’, ‘the argot of Chicago’, p. 259
“a ‘shine’ is always a negro”, p. 259
battering = begging, p. 278
main-stem = main street, p. 278
bindle-stiff – working tramp (hobo?), p. 285
gay-cat – “short-horn, chechaquos, new chums or tenderfeet”, a newcomer to The Road who is an adult, p. 285
road-kid/punk – a boy who is new to The Road, p. 285
prushun – a boy traveling with an older, experienced tramp, p. 285 (derived from Prussian, p. 1182)
profesh – an experienced, adult male tramp, p. 285
Josiah Flynt Willard = tramp/ author, p. 1180
blowed-in-the-glass – “genuine and first-rate, from liquor bottles with the brand name blown in the glass”, p. 1181
Chapter-by-Chapter information and summaries
Near instantaneous sizing up of the prey, the con game, so the tramp knows just what story to tell to get what he wants. The stories he tells – the recounting of his tales – demonstrates this skill.
Holding Her Down
A chapter-long story of one night’s game of cat and mouse with railroad employees with demonstrates just what “holding her down” means.
Mental images that conjure up entire stories that flesh-out and embellish that initial image from his days on The Road.
Pinched and The Pen
London is “pinched” (i.e. arrested) in Niagara Falls and swiftly sentenced to 30 days for the offense of vagrancy. The chapter is all about the graft within the penitentiary and how he profits and prospers in this environment.
Hoboes that Pass in the Night
With regard to my research into graffiti and hobo tags this chapter was a goldmine. The following paragraph is reproduced from page 257 of the book.
“It was one of the latter that I chased clear across Canada over three thousand miles of railroad, and never once did I lay eyes on him. His ‘monica’ was Skysail Jack. I first ran into it at Montreal. Carved with a jack-knife was the skysail-yard of a ship. It was perfectly executed. Under it was ‘Skysail Jack.’ Above was ‘B.W. 9-15-94.’ This latter conveyed the information that he had passed through Montreal bound west, on October 15, 1894. He had one day the start of me. ‘Sailor Jack’ was my monica at that particular time, and promptly I carved it alongside of his, along with the date and the information that I, too, was bound west.”
Great description of how hobo tags were used. Turn of the century text messaging – the 20th Century that is. London describes how “monicas” (monikers) were derived. Their development is summed up below. Incidentally, London’s was “Sailor Jack” for a time.
- in rare instances it is derived from former occupation
- home town or state incorporated into monica
- race or ethnicity
- physical attribute
- Road-Kid names = _____ Kid
Road-Kids and Gay-Cats
“I went on ‘The Road’ because I couldn’t keep away from it; because I hadn’t the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn’t work all my life on ‘one same shift’; because – well, just because it was easier than not to.”
Two Thousand Stiffs
Details London’s journey by rail and raft in General Kelly’s Army
The game of cat and mouse between hoboes and the railroad detectives, constables and police continues. Interestingly, London mentions Jeff Carr a notorious bull in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Wormser’s book tells of Carr’s ruthlessness too but also of his death in a fight with two tramps. Karma.
Chronology p. 1167 - 1170
London was born on January 12, 1876 and died on November 22, 1916.
AUTHORS AND BOOKS MENTIONED IN THE TEXT
Kipling’s Sestina of the Tramp-Royale
Jack London The Road: The Tramp Diary and Other Hobo Writings ed. by Richard W. Etulain (Logan: Utah State Univ. Press © 1979)
Riding the Rails documentary (1930s)
A segment of the PBS series The American Experience titled Riding the Rails. The film was produced, written and directed by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell (© 1997 Out of the Blue Production) and was presented by WBGH Boston Video. The video box says “Read the book Iron Memories: Riding the Rails in the Great Depression by Errol Lincoln Uys.”
RIDING THE RAILS
250,000 teenagers on the road at the height of the Great Depression
1929 – 1941 Great Depression, riding the rails following the harvest, looking for work when, for whatever reason, they could no longer remain at home.
Jim Mitchell – left Wisconsin home in 1933 at age 13, his father had lost his job at a metal fabrication factory, left home because he figured that then he wouldn’t be a burden
Clarence Lee – left Louisiana home in 1929 at age 16 because his father told him that he had to go out to fend for himself because they couldn’t afford to feed and clothe him
Rene Champion – Emigrated from France in 1929, left Pennsylvania home in 1937 at age 16, had a “yen for wandering” but also came from a self-described dysfunctional home
Peggy DeHart – left Wyoming home in 1938 at the age of 15, hard working farm girl who had an argument with her father one night at chores and she decided to leave when another girl asked her to go out hitchhiking with her
John Fawcett – left West Virginia home in 1936 at age 16, came from a good upper-class home and became a road kid for the adventure of it all
Charley Bull – left California home in 1930 at age 19
Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds – left Washington home in 1938 at the age of 16, his family did well through most of the Depression and he road the rails for fun until is father’s business failed and Guitar Whitey was a fruit tramp to earn money for his family. In the film he describes following the harvest to earn money and says that today it is the Mexican migrants that do this work.
James San Jule – left Oklahoma home in 1930 at age 17, hoped to ship out like some exploring and entrepreneuring men had during those days, but James never did
C.R. “Tiny” Boland – left Nebraska home in 1934 at age 14
With the help of newsreel footage, black and white stills and the recollections of elderly men and women who were once teen-hoboes, this documentary has the texture and some of the colloquialisms of Jack London’s writings in The Road. The production brings poverty and suffering to life. I have watched the film several times and I don’t tire of it. The oral history component makes this a compelling presentation – appropriate since hobo lore seems to be passed from one generation of rail-rider to the next in this manner. Of course, the soundtrack, which includes Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, Doc Watson, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, helps to set the mood as well.
Riding the Rails. Michael Mathers. Gambit. Boston, MA © 1973.
Some notes and observations on the book follow:
Picking a car – if there are no boxcars then you’ll have to choose between a gondola, a flatcar or a piggyback, which is a flatcar carrying semi-truck trailers (Mathers 20). The last resort is a grain hopper. Always bring water. The other recommended supply on a trip is paper or cardboard (Mathers 21). “Thousand-mile paper” is defined by Mathers as “two layers of brown packing paper with a thin coat of tar between them” and it creates a durable, waterproof insulation that has multiple uses including bedding (Mathers 22).
Steam engines were phased out by 1952 and replaced by diesel locomotives (Mathers 34).
Mathers writes that the reason men have for riding the rails has changed. During the Depression the impetus for hopping a freight train was the search for employment (Mathers 64). “A new wave of riders hit the road in the late forties and early fifties, veterans of World War II and the Korean War” (Mathers 64). These were men that had returned home from fighting in they began to roam to try to forget what they had seen and done no doubt but perhaps also to try to rediscover their own souls.
Mathers includes an anecdote from “The Rambler of Houston, Texas” (page 74). Anyone with any experience in studing hobo tags on trains will remember seeing one of the Rambler's at some point.
Mathers writes that Klamath Falls, OR is a tramp “resort area” (page 90). This city is a division point for the Union Pacific with one line going on down south to California and the other line heading west over the Cascade Mountains and on to Utah. When Mathers was living as a hobo it was a time where the men lived in jungles and lived on fish from the river’s water and gold skimmed from its sediment. Also of note is a mention of the jungles built up in Cutbank, Montana, “…the last division on the Burlington Northern route going west before the Continental Divide…” (Mathers 90). This is where the home of “Whiskers” is to be found – a cave in the hills and the “home” he has built up around it. Over 30 years have past since Mathers wrote this and no doubt Whiskers has passed away, he wasn't very young when Mathers met him.
Some answers were forthcoming for the questions of who and why. “Generally, most hoboes are blue-collar workers, who at one time held such jobs as big-machine operators, plumbers, electricians, mechanics and cooks. Some travel around the country working at their profession for a few months and then more on. The majority, however, make up the migratory labor force that works the harvests: bunching onions, bucking spuds, scooping beets, bailing hay and picking fruit” (Mathers 100). I think that just like with Daniel Leen’s book, this image of the migrant agricultural worker is one of the past not one of today’s hobo. Mathers acknowledged the change that was taking place even as he was photographing and documenting the hobo life (Mathers 122). He writes that the “classic period” of the hobo was the Great Depression but that men have ridden the rails for free since the railroads began but the reasons for their traveling has changed and continues to change.
I think that one of the last things that Mathers writes is very appropriate for inclusion here especially since the next notes that I will write are for Nels Anderson’s book about hoboes and the homeless. “In the past, societies have often called forth or cast out migrant groups as the result of social or technological change…the experience of the members progressively unfits them for a return to the society from which they separated” (Mathers 124). This is a theme of Anderson’s work and writing as well.
The Freighthopper’s Manual for North America: Hoboing in the 1980s. Daniel Leen. Capra Press, Santa Barbara, CA. © 1979.
My interest in hobo life and freighthopping stems from my investigation of hobo tags (also referred to by some writers as hobo monikers) – the line drawing graffiti that you find interspersed with the aerosol pieces on freight cars. I have been trying to find clues to how and why and to what end these hobo tags are written. Daniel Leen’s book, The Freighthopper’s Manual for North America is a sort of how-to manual for those new to this form of transportation. He offers quite a bit of practical information that I believe would be valuable for anyone wanting to hop on a freight train and find themselves an adventure. But my intuition tells me that the author’s commentary on who is riding the rails is outdated. The hobo that Daniel Leen describes is a Caucasian migrant worker following well-worn traveling patterns that crisscross the United States following the harvest. I just don’t believe that this is the case today. On the first page of chapter one, Leen writes the following:
“I strongly suspect that the price of Washington Delicious apples would rise markedly if all the trains coming into eastern Washington were very thoroughly ‘cleaned’…”
Twenty-seven years after this book was published, I just don’t see that here in Washington. Workers harvesting everything from apples to oysters here in Washington tend to be Hispanic and my hunch is that they aren’t migrating around the U.S. either. I think, instead, there are Hispanic communities that grow up around the fishery, viticulture, landscape and agribusiness centers in Washington. These workers have families and friendships and communities and I think they are creating their own cultural enclaves here in America.
So who are the hobos these days? I’ve seen some blogs on the web of middle-aged white guys with cameras and cell phones. Have the rails become yuppified just like the hiking scene here in the Northwest? Is that the cycle of escapism for the baby-boomers? First they are hippies with counterculture ideals, then the stock market and tech boom made them a lot of money and in their yuppified retirements they return to the counterculture past-times of their youth? Well, those questions will take more research and for the time being it might be easier to work my way backwards through time to the Great Depression and even earlier to find out who the hobos were.
Early on in his book, in the acknowledgements in fact, Leen is quick to set out what hobos aren’t. Daniel Leen thanks Byron Fish, a columnist at the Seattle Times, for “the best definition of the difference between hobo, bum and tramp” that he had ever found. I can only assume (since the passage wasn’t quoted or cited as such) that the definitions from Byron Fish are as follows and I quote from page ii of Leen’s book:
“‘Hobo’ is a honorable word meaning an itinerant worker, often a harvest hand following the crops. The term might also include college students and other youths out to see the world as amateur hobos.
Hobo should not be confused with ‘bum.’ Some hobos become bums, but the same can be said of any section of society. Bums do not work.
Neither is a hobo a ‘tramp.’ Tramps walk or hitchhike, but a hobo is faithful to the railroads whenever possible. He just hopes the railroads remain faithful to him.”
I wouldn’t say that Daniel Leen’s book was helpful in answering my questions about hobo tags but I still found the book interesting and even better, the book was quick and easy to read. The photos of hobos proudly holding bottles of “Paisano” wine were priceless.
Here are some highlights from the book, listed by chapter.
| Chapter Title
|| Summary of Information Provided|
|Why Hop Freights?
||Economic form of transportation with a maximum amount of freedom|
|Advantages and Disadvantages
||The biggest advantage seems to be that, as opposed to hitchhiking, you don't have to kiss anybody's ass when you're hopping a train and personal appearance isn't that important either. The disadvantage seems to be that you can get pretty dirty on the train so he recommends coveralls.|
|What to Bring
||The title of this chapter is self-explanitory. He gives a list of possible equipment to carry and some commentary on the pros and cons of each.|
|Dodging the Heat
||How to get information on whether or not a railyard is "hot" (i.e. patrolled by railroad police) is mentioned.|
||This chapter covers finding your train for your intended destination and some ins and outs of how and where particular types of trains go (hotshots vs. local trains)|
|How a Train is Made Up
||Brief discussion of how the cars are put together, i.e. "made up", and "switched" in the yard and how to time your boarding with the call for the engine.|
||Railyard locations with in cities, general yard layout (tracks and offices), the "hump" and a few precautions (railyard etiquite and safety)|
|Picking your Car
||Train car descriptions along with the pros and cons of each type. Really important information is given here, stuff I think could save your life if you attempt to illegally hop a freight. For example:
P 62 In the mid-‘60’s boxcars were redesigned, now the ladder doesn’t go to the top of the car. Leen claims that decking the train isn’t dangerous. Beware of empty woodchip cars – there isn’t any place to land once you scale the ladder. Another option is to ride with the cattle or find an available caboose (though that is a rarity).
Something you need to see or experience more than read about. Precautions:
- Pay attention to the ground ahead for obstacles
- always make sure you can follow your pack into (or out of) a car so you don’t lose it in the transition
- avoid carrying anything in your hands
- pick a ladder that goes all the way up
Tips and hints:
- p. 71 sleep with your clothes on so you can get up and go so as to avoid being switched off (i.e. when your box car reaches its destination and is unhooked from the larger string of cars)
- p. 71 pick an empty with both doors open so if one slams shut and locks you’ve still got an escape also you can better evaluate your car’s status
- p. 74 sleep in the head end of the car (you can avoid a lot of wind that way) but with your feet pointing towards the head of the car to keep from having your neck broken in a sudden stop (i.e. derailment)
- p. 74 ‘500 mile paper’ - use it as a cushion and insulation
Leen lists seven rules at the beginning of the chapter that seem like good advice to heed:
- If you can, get off when the train stops
- Using a side ladder is a good way to test train speed and ease yourself off
- At high speeds, if you’ve got to get off a patch of gravel an be enough cushion for a landing
- 15 mph is too fast to get off
- If you commit to getting off but can’t keep on your feet roll away from the train
- Don’t get off with your pack on your back
- Keep your eyes on the ground ahead of you to avoid obstacles
And finally, here is a list of references from Appendix II in Leen’s book.
National Railway Publishing Co. The Official Guide to the Railways. New York: National Railway Publishing Co., 424 W. 33rd St., New York, NY 10001, 06/10/26.
Rand McNally. Handy railroad atlas of the United States. Rand McNally.
London, J. The road. Peregrine Smith.
Guthrie, W. Bound for Glory. Signet.
Kerouac, J. The dharma bums. Signet.
Anderson, N. Hobo: The sociology of the homeless man. University of Chicago Press; 1923.
Allsop, K. Hard Travlin.' Plume Books.
Mathers, M. Riding the rails. Houghton Mifflin.
Buyrn, E. Vagabonding in America. Random House, Bookworks; 1973.
The Railroad Evangelist. Berne, Indiana.
Hobo: A young man’s thoughts on trains and tramping in America. Eddy Joe Cotton. © 2002 by Zebu Recchia. Harmony Books. New York.
I have been searching for the reasons why individuals get on a train and ride. I suppose what I have found is that the reasons are the same as why individuals do anything in life. The reasons are varied and personal but often include fortune and glory, despair or anger or self-exploration and discovery. Eddy Joe Cotton’s reasons aren’t much different. Raised by his father, hardened by poverty and schooled by life he takes to the road after a fight with his father and he discovers manhood, heartache and Las Vegas. The amount of information on hobo life seems thin considering the fact that the title of the book is “Hobo” after all. I shouldn’t have expected it to be an anthropological study of hobo life, especially after the description of the author’s sexual exploits with a “starlet” from LA.
The anecdotal information about sharing among hoboes, jungles, drinking wood alcohol from cans of Sterno (a drink called a Pink Lady) and some of the general information confirm what I have read in Daniel Leen’s instruction manual and Jack London’s memoir of sorts in The Road. Some things seem slow to change like language and social discrimination. There is a pretty extensive glossary at the end of the book which is good for clarifying the language in the story but it makes me think that a better writer wouldn’t have needed it. It is probably unfair to keep bringing up Jack London’s name but this reminds me of something that I should have written in the notes for The Road. London used many unfamiliar slang terms in his writings about his days as a Road Kid and a tramp. London skillfully incorporated the definitions for these words into the context of the story and in general, the reader has no need for a glossary. Reading The Road and Richard Wormser’s book Hoboes: Wandering in America, 1870 – 1940 are great foundations for any further reading on the subject of hoboes and train hopping.
A few notes:
p. 128 – “scenic cruiser” = a boxcar with both doors open
Cotton’s observations on the location of railroad tracks and rail yard within and near towns are interesting and logical. After reading the passage on locating train yards I wondered why I hadn’t noticed these things before – or at least why I hadn’t put what I intuited into words. The relevant “Journal Entry” is on pages 139 and 140.
- In a town with no river, locate bridges they will cross over railroad tracks
- In a small town the tracks will follow the main road in town
- In a town with hills, the train yard will be located in a valley
- If mining or farming are among the town’s industries then the tracks will pass by the mine, mill or grain elevator
- If there are factories in a town or city then the tracks will pass by these industries and in port towns the yard will be near the water
Cotton’s recommendations for finding your way and getting on the right train for your intended destination are to find a brakeman or another tramp and try to figure out where the “divisions” are – places for crew changes and refueling. A compass might help too (Cotton 140).
Authors and resources mentioned in the text:
Kenneth Allsop, Hard Travellin’: The Hobo and his History, 1968
Godfrey Irwin, American Tramp and Underworld Slang, 1930
Duffy Littlejohn, Hopping Freight Trains in America, 1993
Chronology provided in the book:
1700’s – Cowboys in the Wild West and Settlers
1861 – the Civil War ended, many soldiers became hoboes
May 10, 1869 – the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific joined at Promontory Summit in Utah
1905 – the birth of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World)
700 Hobo drawings/Flickr group
The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman. Dutton © 2005.
I happened upon this book through a website that contributors have posted drawings of the 700 hoboes which Hodgman lists. Don’t be mistaken. Hodgman does not list them in homage. The book is meant to be entertaining and funny but I didn’t find it to be either of those things.
You can find the drawings of the 700 hoboes here.