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Riding the Rails During the Great Depression

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A hobo is a traveling worker who has little and is homeless. Unlike a “tramp”, who works only when forced to, and a “bum”, who does not  work at all. They carried their worldly goods in a bindle; this was their term for a bundle of bedding carried in a sack.

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During the Great Depression, people went across the country in search of work. But without a job, they didn’t have money to pay for transportation. The only way to get across the country, and potentially get the job, was riding the rails. This is how the hobos of the Great Depression lived from day-to-day.

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The above image illustrates the panic and reality that men faced in trying to feed themselves on the road and their families at home.

Sometimes families traveled together and made-do with camping along creek banks for a water source. They carried what they had with them, and often children had an essential to carry along.

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They had to think about food all the time. Finding it was a daily task, and they all knew it. Hobos developed a series of symbols in order to “talk” to each other, leaving messages so other hobos would get information. Friendly farms where they could find work and food were marked, as were the unfriendly farms where they would find neither.

John’s aunt Jenny Belle, who I write about in Tales of a Cosmic Possum, ran a boarding house in Union, South Carolina. Because of her kindness and proximity to the railroad, sometimes hobos stopped at her home. She always made sure they left her house with something to eat, even if she couldn’t help them any other way. If any farmers needed help, she would share that information with them, too.

In a list of thousands of men and women who rode the rails are names of many who later became famous –

  • Novelists Louis L’Amour, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and James Michener
  • Actor Clark Gable
  • TV host Art Linkletter
  • Oil billionaire H. L. Hunt
  • Journalist Eric Sevareid
  • Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

Teens struck out on their own for an adventurous life riding from one place to another.

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Unbelievable, but true, many hoboes attended the 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis. The group constructed a strict ethical code for all hobos to follow. This is a partial listing of those rules.

1. YOU DO YOU.

“Decide your own life, don’t let another person run or rule you.”

2. SHOW SOME RESPECT.

“When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.”

3. DON’T BE AN OPPORTUNIST.

“Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.”

4. GET A JOB.

“Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.”

5. BE A SELF-STARTER.

“When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.”

6. SET A GOOD EXAMPLE.

“Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.”

7. BE MINDFUL OF OTHERS.

“When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly, if not worse than you.”

8. DON’T LITTER.

“Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.”

9. LEND A HAND.

“If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.”

10. PRACTICE GOOD HYGIENE.

“Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.”

11. BE COURTEOUS WHEN YOU’RE RIDING THE RAILS …

“When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.”

12. … AND WHEN YOU’RE NOT.

“Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.”

13. HELP OUT THE KIDS.

“Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.”

14. SAME GOES FOR HOBOS.

“Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.”

15. LEND YOUR VOICE.

“If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!

The hobo culture was amazing. Starting after the Civil War as people were displaced and continuing on until after WW II, this way of life appealed to some men, but for others it was a necessary choice. Even the danger of jumping on and off those trains couldn’t stop them from that leap.

I enjoyed finding out about hobos and their lives, but I know it would not have been one I would have chosen. But then Lulu, my grandmother, used to say “sometimes you do what you have to do.”

“I grew up poor. I never had any money. I was a hobo, you know, ride the freights.” Art Linkletter