RIDING THE RAILS
As the nation sank deeper into the social and economic morass of the Depression, vast numbers of Americans took to the roads
and rails in search of better lives. Some traveled alone, making their way across the vast landscape by whatever means
were available. These individuals, called hobos or less politely, vagrants, were predominantly male and unattached.
Although they were often disparaged by members of the communities through which they traveled, most were willing to work
in exchange for a meal or a place to spend the night.
Although many travelers of the time resorted to hitchhiking along the highways, hobos preferred the relative
convenience of the rails. They would hide along the tracks just beyond a railroad yard, then hop aboard freight cars pointed
in the direction they wanted to go. Although the practice has been romanticized in popular lore in the years since, "riding
the rails" involved significant risk. Railroad companies would hire security officers, nicknamed "bulls", to police
the lines. These "hired guns" were often brutal in their treatment of the riders they caught. In addition, jumping
on and off of moving trains was extremely dangerous. Thousands of hobos were killed by accident or at the hands
of railroad guards.
This is not to say that hobos spent all their time alone. Along some routes, cars were packed with dozens of travelers and hobo
camps, or "jungles" sprang up along the tracks to provide a place to sleep and cook meals. Sometimes, groups would
travel together for a time to pool resources and the benefit of "safety in numbers". They developed a hieroglyphic-like
code carving symbols into trees, fence posts and walls to let other travelers know where work or food may be
Most Depression era hobos exchanged their wandering ways for full time jobs as World War II brought new economic growth to the
nation. However, some refused to give up the hobo life and in the decades to come, there were sporadic revivals in some
parts of the country. The romanticized image of the hobo lives on, commemorated in fiction, music and the occasional