Hobohemia: Riding The RailsOne of the first 'tramps' to write hobo life into history was Josiah Flynt. In the early 1890s, Flynt published articles describing tramp life abroad, at home, and on the rails. As an expert on tramp customs and habits, he later worked for the railroad companies as an informant.
To-day it is the boast of the hoboes that they can travel in every State of the Union for a mill per mile, while in a number of States they pay nothing at all. On lines where brakemen demand money of them, ten cents is usually sufficient to settle for a journey of a hundred miles, and twenty cents often secures a night's ride. They have different methods of riding, among which the favorite is to steal into an empty box-car on a freight-train. At night this is comparatively easy to do; on many roads it is possible to travel this way, undisturbed, till morning. If the train has no "empties," they must ride on top of the car, between the "bumpers," on one of the car ladders, or on the rods. On passenger-trains they ride on top, on the "blind baggage," and on the trucks.
To "beat a train" was a challenge and a thrill. Where the hobo ended up riding depended on the type of train and the obstacles on it, like railroad bulls or other riders already in position.
Where To Ride
An empty - or even a loaded - boxcar was also popular. Hobos were often blamed for damage they did to merchandise or to the boxcar itself. In a freezing cold car, they might light a fire, even ripping up wood from the floor. Riding a loaded car was also dangerous because the merchandise might shift and crush a man to death. Likewise, one never sat with his legs out the side of the car: if the door suddenly slammed shut, legs could be severed from the body.
But to "ride the rods" requires nerve, and skill, and daring. And, by the way, there is but one rod, and it occurs on passenger coaches. Idiomatically, it becomes "rods," just as idiomatically we speak of "riding trains." .... A four-wheel truck is oblong in shape and is divided into halves by a cross-partition. What is true of one-half is true of the other half. Between this cross-partition and the axle is a small lateral rod, three to four feet in length, running parallel with both the partition and the axle. This is the rod. There is more often than not another rod, running longitudinally, the air-brake rod. These rods cross each other; but woe to the tyro who takes his seat on the brake-rod! It is not the rod, and the chance is large that the tyro's remains will worry and puzzle the county coroner.3 Jack London
Clearly, beating the trains was a very dangerous occupation. Thousands were injured and killed riding the rails.
Thousands of wandering wage-earners in search of work are killed on American railroads, because society as a whole, and the railroad as a public carrier in particular, are ignorantly uninterested in the welfare of the less fortunate members of society. The number of so-called "trespassers" killed annually on American railroads exceeds the combined total of passengers and trainmen killed annually. From 1901 to 1903, inclusive, 25,000 "trespassers" were killed, and an equal number were maimed, crippled, and injured. From one-half to three-quarters of the "trespassers" according to the compilers of the figures were "vagrants," wandering, homeless wage-earners in search of work to make their existence possible.4
"A No. 1, The Famous Tramp" was the moniker of a tramp whose claim to fame was to have traveled 500,000 miles for $7.61. While Nels Anderson notes that his books were more or less sensational and that many tramps thought the incidents he related were overdrawn, "A-No. 1" nevertheless laid out some slang terms for those who had been injured while beating trains.5
Outsmarting the bulls and crew was another matter altogether. While some crewmen accepted money or goods as exchange for a ride, there was a strong tradition of violence against the trespassers. They might be beaten senseless by the shacks or forced to jump from the moving train. The especially brutal bull might then shoot at the hobo as he was running away, that is, if he landed running. One might also be left out in the middle of a literal nowhere, in the dark, in the cold, with nothing. At best, the tramp may just face arrest - and the work farm.
When Spring reached Chicago, it lost me.
The World of Tomorrow: IntroductionThe New York World's Fair of 1939 provides the last great backdrop against which one might look at the history of the hobo. Built upon the marshy grasslands of Flushing Meadows, the fair was a spectacle of futuristic design promoting a vision of yet another promised land, this one to be achieved via technology and the purchase of industry's products. If the Centennial Exposition of 1876 introduced America to the Machine, by 1939 its incorporation into American life was so complete that the design of the Fair itself and the products it promoted spoke the "language" of the machine. Huge corporations like GE and Ford exhibited visions of an ideal future - streamlined cars and clean, clear highways - for those who 'bought' in, who believed. Product consumption makes good citizens, the spectacle seemed to say, consumption will equalize and uplift citizens into this utopian tomorrow.
All World Fairs present the best picture of the present - and in this case especially - the future. But while the hope of the Machine Age was underscored by unemployment and labor unrest, and while the dream of high culture and purity embodied in The White City was mirrored across town in the development of a subculture of impoverished, homeless men, what did The World of Tomorrow hold for the hobo? By 1939, it definitely did not hold hope.
Already in the early 1920s, the market demand for hobo labor was diminishing. The increased mechanization of industries such farming, ice harvesting, and logging made men increasingly less necessary. Farmers had combines and other machines and needed fewer and fewer workers to help harvest their crops. The wheat belt, and much of the rest of the West, also now had a large enough permanent population or "home guard" from which to draw their labor supply. As the Great Depression would make all too clear, migrant workers known as "rubber tramps" now traveled in motor vehicles. The vision of the future built on highways and corporate farming promulgated at the Fair in New York finally spoke some truth to the hobo, not that he didn't exist, but that he was no longer necessary.