Just hopping freights doesn't make one a Hobo. Tramps, bums, yeggs, criminals and some just plain no goods also ride the rails.
December 9, 2010 12:08 PM   Subscribe

A Hobo is a person that travels to work. A tramp is a person that travels and won't work. A bum is a person that will neither travel or work. Folklore abounds with the irresistible pull or joys of the freight hopping lifestyle: "it'll get in your blood. You're not agoing anywhere. You don't care. You just ride.". The largest hobo population was probably during the Great Depression. There are fewer freight-hoppers and hobos today (around 20,000) than there were in its heyday (over 500,000), mostly because the high speed of trains today makes it dangerous to hop on and off the train. Still, there's no better way to see the world than from the top of a freight train.

Note that not all hobos ride the rails; some hitchhike or take buses; they're sometimes called "rubber tramps" (more terminology here). Many people are aware of hobo signs, the most famous of which is probably the Kindhearted Lady. It's rare to see hobo signs in the wild today.
posted by Deathalicious (37 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
They called it the War to end all Wars. They called it the London Fire. They called it the Trail of Tears, but they were all wrong. It was called the Great Depression, and the Hobos saw it coming.
posted by The White Hat at 12:18 PM on December 9, 2010 [6 favorites]

Any discussion of Jockers?
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:19 PM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

What are the legal ramifications of hopping on a freight train? Movies would have me believe that there can be some pretty violent repercussions...
posted by aloiv2 at 12:31 PM on December 9, 2010

The few times I've seen people stowed away on rail cards, they looked an awful lot like immigrant workers.
posted by mmrtnt at 12:37 PM on December 9, 2010

...and they had their own newspaper

which they would sell for a few cents to get a little money
but though they are now pretty much gone, some still gather yearly in Britt, Iowa:

and here, a timeline of the past right up to now

the most famous hobo?
a Supreme Court Justice!
posted by Postroad at 12:37 PM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can typo 30 WPM, too.
posted by mmrtnt at 12:38 PM on December 9, 2010

I knew a guy who claimed his early work for the railroad 30 or so years ago involved cleaning up when train hoppers accidentally got locked into freight cars and cooked themselves.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:45 PM on December 9, 2010

If you dig art about the subject. Check out Mike Brodie and/or Bill Daniels. Mike Brodie does some wonderful photography (multiple blogs have shots, no main website) and Bill Daniels did an impressive film on Bozo Texino, legendary hobo.
posted by priested at 12:52 PM on December 9, 2010

Hopping freights is fun, but it's also one of the more suicidal things I've done. Wouldn't really recommend it, especially if you like having all of your limbs. Or head. Plus, with increased security at the rail yards, you'll often end up having to try getting on/off in places where the trains can be moving at a pretty good clip.

Just don't. Really. Go try skydiving or something.
posted by aramaic at 12:56 PM on December 9, 2010

My mother's father died during the Great Depression as a result of hopping a freight train. He'd done it countless times before as a way to travel between Kansas City (where his wife and daughter lived) and Pueblo (where he got occasional work at CF&I Steel). One time, he slipped, his leg caught in a coupling, was cut off - he fell to the ground and bled to death before anyone could get to him.
So - not so romantic in my family.
posted by dbmcd at 1:38 PM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Shameless plug: my wife wrote her master's thesis on Boxcar Bertha the fictional (but still widely believed to be real) protagonist of the "autobiography" Sister of the Road as told to Dr. Ben Reitman.
posted by Deathalicious at 1:45 PM on December 9, 2010

I've known a few people who have hopped freights and they all have two pieces of advice:
(1) Stay away from the bull (that is, the head security guy at the freightyard), and
(2) Never ever try to get off or on a moving train. That's how people die.

If you want to go freight hopping, find someone else who knows their shit to bring you. Me, i think it's too risky, but to each their own.
posted by wayland at 1:49 PM on December 9, 2010

Oh, Ben Reitman is a fascinating character, too. He was a doctor who worked with hobos. He was also a lover of the infamous anarchist, Emma Goldman.
posted by wayland at 1:50 PM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just dropping in to recommend the book You Can't Win by Jack Black (author).
The book tells of his experiences in the hobo underworld, freight hopping around the still Wild West of the United States and Canada, becoming a burglar and member of the yegg brotherhood, getting hooked on opium, doing stints in jail, and escaping, often with the assistance of crooked cops or judges. The book was a best seller in 1926.
posted by blueberry at 2:06 PM on December 9, 2010

I knew a woman who was really into train-hopping. And by train-hopping, I mean getting her Dad to buy her a bus ticket home and fronting for fellow punks. This is a vanishing way of life, beaten by the march of technology as cheap digital cameras make it easier to filter out posers. Won't somebody think of the posers?
posted by mobunited at 2:13 PM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

My wife came to town on a freight train!
Her old train hoppin' buddies still stop by for a visit when they roll through these parts.
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 2:25 PM on December 9, 2010

back in the days before katrina, i interviewed bill daniel, the guy who made who is bozo texino as mentioned above in priested's comment. i like to think i'm a fairly good interviewer, but i struggled through that one. not because bill isn't a perfectly charming individual who knows his subject well, he's the real deal, and has done quite a bit of rail hopping himself, but because i wanted to talk about the romance of the road, the lure of the vagabond lifestyle. i thought i actually had a leg up because when i was a wee lass, i actually met a few hobos. they'd hop off the train & walk down the road into town to beg a sandwich or sleep in the idle kilns at the defunct brick yard on the north end of town. nevermind that i was like, 5 years old at the time, i thought i was "informed" and understood how that type of freedom beckoned the adventurous.

daniel disabused me of that notion--kindly, but disabused, nonetheless--and told me that the life can be brutal, savage, lonely, and dangerous. dangerous not only because of railroad security personnel & the peril of trying to snag a multi-ton machine & hang on, but also because of some of the people you meet when you do that. he does not necessarily recommend it. at least not to me.
posted by msconduct at 2:45 PM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Other freight hopping related links! (yay!)

The Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture

NorthbankFred.com "freighthopping, hoboes, boxcar art" -also stories and articles (also has a quite comprehensive links section)

Hoboing, Guerilla Style in case you find hopping active lines too dangerous for your tastes...

Plus lots* of youtube channels to enjoy.

And for fun, the people-of-walmart equivalent in the freight riding community

*This one has tutorials about equipment to bring, how to understand what you hear on scanners around rail yards, reading atlases and timetables and whatnot. But yeah, really, if you really really want to ride trains (not advocating it! it's dangerous! etc. etc.) you should really find someone very experienced to go with you at first or at least give you tons and tons of advice)
posted by mingo_clambake at 3:07 PM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I love this post. I really do. I have about four of the links sitting in my tabs to go back to and spend hours. But I gotta say.... jesus christ on a stick I hate those rich fucks with their expensive cameras and camping gear and their oh-so-fashionably ripped attire and fucking stylish goggles in those Flickr links.

People take the rails because they have to. Because this dangerous transport is the somehow most possible of all the dangerous fucking ways the edgedwellers have to travel. I have known a helluva lot of slumming suburban kids who rode the rails. I always thought them a bit romantic in their rejection of the bourgeois life. Taking a risk at seeing the world differently. But goddammit to hell, those pictures make me want to punch them in the face myself before the bulls get to them. Won't someone please steal their cameras and the credit card they have resting next to their sacs and and show them what it means to risk getting your legs cut off because you really need to get to that crappy-ass job which is your only prospect and you need to be there by tomorrow? This whole slumming thing is starting to make me want to punch my own youthful past self in the tit.
posted by RedEmma at 3:33 PM on December 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

/violent outburst... but god, it was visceral.
posted by RedEmma at 3:41 PM on December 9, 2010

Didn't realize when typing the previous Mike Brodie comment that the link psylosyren's posted actually had Mike Brodie's work. Very cool. While RedEmma is seemingly correct (only verified 3rd hand for what thats worth) that there are MANY people riding the rails without the actual need, I'm not sure that in itself discounts the quality documentation of the photography. Guess I'm also not that emotionally devoted to the movement. Just an observation.
posted by priested at 3:47 PM on December 9, 2010

The emotion I guess comes from having learned a lot about the 20s and 30s and what it was like to live as a migrant worker at that time. It really was only vaguely a lark--many many men and women have been killed by that need to use the trains. Legs shorn, beaten to death by the bulls... Riding the rails is no longer romantic to me because I've read what happened to so many who had to resort to that life. There are still people out there who are risking life and limb, literally, to get somewhere. It would be nice if those rich suburban kids would rent a minivan when they get to the end of their adventure and give a bunch of migrant workers a ride.
posted by RedEmma at 3:58 PM on December 9, 2010

What are the legal ramifications of hopping on a freight train?

Railroad police officers^ have full arrest authority, often serve warrants in conjunction with local police agencies for railroad-related criminal offenses, and carry firearms. The overwhelming majority of arrests by freight and passenger railroad police are for crimes against state law. Railroad police officers receive their basic training at approved state police academies and schools and often must be certified in the same manner as police or peace officers.

State laws vary, but for the most part, railroad police jurisdiction is limited to the property of the railroad and/or the safety and security of its passengers or cargo. Hot pursuit is permitted, as is off-property investigation and arrest, depending on state law details.

Railroad Trespassing Fact Sheet (from the FRA)

Key Safety Tips to Avoid Becoming a Trespass Fatality Statistic:
• Always expect a train! This is the most important thing to remember. Whether one is near a seemingly inactive rail line or at locations where there are multiple tracks, a train may approach very rapidly from any direction at any time.
• Cross the tracks only at designated locations. Crossing tracks at any other place is illegal and puts you at risk of tripping or slipping on rails or ballast. There is no margin for error if a train is approaching.
• Don't try to beat a train at a crossing. Detecting or accurately sensing the distance and speed of an approaching train is difficult if not impossible.
• Don't stand close to railroad tracks. A train is at least three feet wider than the tracks on each side.
• Don't ever walk along tracks, over rail bridges or in tunnels. There is often only enough clearance on bridges and tunnels to accommodate a train.
• Don't climb on, over, under or in between moving or stationary rail cars. Even a freight car that is standing on a siding and isn't attached to a train can be dangerous.
• Never try to hop or jump aboard a moving train; and don’t try to cross the tracks between cars of a stopped train because it may start moving at any moment.

And for the other side: How to hop a freight train.
posted by dhartung at 4:01 PM on December 9, 2010

The Yeggman.
posted by Tube at 4:08 PM on December 9, 2010

From The Best of Craigslist: "A few pointers from your friendly neighborhood locomotive engineer."
posted by bz at 4:09 PM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

My grandfather and his best friend (Red Doyle and Jack Henry) rode the rails for a couple of years in the depths of the Depression. They went cross country several times looking for any work they could find, but favoring construction if they could find it. News of a road, bridge or pipeline being built would get them on the trains however far away the rumor reported work. They made a little money...even enough to send home to families sometimes, and they were hungry a lot of the time too. It came to an end for them when Jack jumped off the train they were riding through New Mexico...he jumped too soon and was thrown under the train losing a leg. My Pappy jumped immediately then, pulled him away from the tracks and staunched the blood flow long enough for help to arrive. They decided to go home.
But damn what stories they told me! It could fill a book.
since my granddad was my hero I naturally had to try hopping trains as a teenager in the San Joaquin valley. It was terrifying and incredibly exhilerating. When I related my adventures to my granddad he blew a gasket...made me promise to never do it again. I haven't. But I'm not sorry I did it.
posted by txmon at 4:12 PM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's what I mean: look through the eyes of a guy born in 1900 who's trying to get to North Dakota for the wheat harvest, lightheadedly hungry, not a dime to his name, shoes that have made his feet bloody they're so old... and look at those photos of those kids.
posted by RedEmma at 4:19 PM on December 9, 2010

jesus christ on a stick I hate those...

eh, at least we got that over with.
posted by iamck at 4:51 PM on December 9, 2010

Had a train-hopper stay on my couch for about a month a few years back.
Dude was a dick.
posted by brevator at 5:14 PM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Heard that slightly differently:

A hobo works and moves on.
A tramp mooches and moves on.
A bum mooches and hangs around.
posted by jfuller at 5:20 PM on December 9, 2010

The the YT title of the "joys" link in the FPP made me wonder that Al Jolson would be singing this (he wasn't!) - someone had to bring up Utah Phillips. (RIP friend, we miss you)
posted by pdxjmorris at 10:31 PM on December 9, 2010

RedEmma: "Here's what I mean: look through the eyes of a guy born in 1900 who's trying to get to North Dakota for the wheat harvest, lightheadedly hungry, not a dime to his name, shoes that have made his feet bloody they're so old... and look at those photos of those kids"

You mean they should stay in their sheltered, privileged, suburban bubble and never try something this dangerous and challenging? I'm not seeing a problem with these kids. Yeah, if things get rough, many of them can always run back home, and many of them might even have trust funds to help them along the way. But maybe many of them also grew bored with the bubble life, or come from abusive homes, or maybe they just want to expand their horizons. I think we have to be careful of judging these kids as all one monolithic unit here.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:25 AM on December 10, 2010

...or come from abusive homes

That's certainly true for most of the teenage hobos I've met, although granted it was a small number. Most of them have no family. They might have stolen those nice digital cameras. If not, well, digital cameras are fairly cheap these days, especially in pawn shops.

You can actually make a good living begging once you arrive at a new town (yeah, most of the "hobos" I knew were actually tramps, I guess) and with virtually zero overhead (no car, no rent, no utilities, etc) they actually can have a fair amount of extra cash. Most of them have drug/alcohol problems, so a good portion of that money will go to that. But they have no bank accounts, so money isn't really worth saving to them. So they often just spend it.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:22 AM on December 10, 2010

Red Emma's name makes him/her seem twice as righteously passionate. The real Red Emma would have a similar attitude I'm sure.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:03 AM on December 10, 2010

Some people are forced to sleep outside because of unfortunate circumstances. But I still like camping.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:00 PM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

« Older Burger myths   |   The Future Gets Closer, Part IV: Mouse Edition Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments