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Riding The Rails: A Hobos Life





What is a HOBO?

To clarify the differences, a HOBO is a person who travels looking for work, a TRAMP is a person who travels but doesn't work, and a TRAMP is someone who neither travels nor looks for work. Big difference! And even females became Hobos but were known as BODETTES.

After the Civil War, thousands of returning soldiers found their homes destroyed and no work found. There was no option for then, and with no money, the only alternative was to hop on a train and leave the area to find work. Iy was on their trip home when asked where they were going when their answer would be "homeward bound," which was shortened to HOBO. Others believe the name came from the fact they were usually helping farmers and thus the name "hoe-boys." Either way, the name stuck, and these men were known as HOBOS. It was out of necessity and survival that Hobos began to ride the rails. They became an essential boon to farmers, miners, lumber companies, and railroad workers out west who needed a workforce.

Thousands took to the 'free' ride on the rails, but it was dangerous hopping a moving train and staying out of sight of the railroad "bulls" who were determined to keep hobos off their trains. Many lost their legs, hands, and even lives. In one year alone, some 6500 hobos were killed by accident or by the 'bills.'

And then the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s forced even more of the population to become Hobos. This time though, youngsters joined them, thinking their families needed fewer mouths to feed. 1927 50 % were men over the age of forty. But by 1932, the number climbed to 75% of youngsters under twenty-five riding the rails.

President Roosevelt enacted the Civilian Conservation Corporation (CCC) to address the youth problem. Over 1200 camps were set up for youths 16-25 for their room and board, paying them $30. per month but $25. had to be sent home, but they had to work, and some of their duties included fighting fires, planting trees, and many other duties. Some 240,000 youths were participating. Other agencies also formed, but the whole country faced depression, and funds were dwindling.

Hobo Camps, Rules and Their Signs

If you entered a hobo camp and wanted to eat, you were expected to contribute by adding something to the pot, known as Mulligan Stew, no matter what it would be. It could be a potato, a can of beans, or a vegetable. The hobos would sit around a fire, sharing stories and tips on trains and places to find help.

The hobos set up a list of rules and a chart of signs and jobs available to help each other survive. Hobos were known to carry a piece of chalk to mark signs for others following. And hobos had their own slang.

Here are a few of their sayings:

  • Catch the Westbound: means to die
  • Catch the Moon: To sleep on the open
  • Easy Mark: Identifies food or rest.
  • Jungle Area: A hobo camp
  • On the Fly: Jump a moving train.
  • Beefer: a whiner
  • Go With the Birds: Heading south.
  • Hundred on a Plate: A can of beans.





Some Notable and Famous Hobos

There are some important and notable hobos:

  • Jack Demsey
  • Louise L'Amour
  • Carl Sandberg
  • Woody Guthrie
  • Art Linkletter
  • Jack London
  • William O. Douglas, Supreme Court Justice

Some Famous Hobos:

  • Steam Train Maury, Five-Time King of Hobos
  • Pennsylvania Kid
  • Slow Motion Shorty
  • Hardrock Kid
  • Connecticut Slim

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Hemmingway Hopping a Train

Hemmingway Hopping a Train

Steam Train Maury, King of Hobos

Steam Train Maury, King of Hobos

Hobo Woody Guthrie

Hobo Woody Guthrie

Hobo Rides

Hobo Rides

Annual Hobo Convention, Britt, Iowa

Every year in August since its inception in 1900, an annual Hobo Convention is held in Britt, Iowa. Britt was a small, sleepy town trying to attract people to their town. Here they hold events, have picnics and music. They select a King and a Queen, chosen simply by applause after their speech to determine the winners. They come by RVs or cars to reminisce and swap stories of times gone by. A local Hobo Museum is located on Main Street with many memorial pieces of Hobo history. Their phone number is 641-843-9104.

After the railroads switched from steam to diesel the rails grew more dangerous and much faster and security was much more apparent, and the life of a hobo declined.


fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on January 13, 2021:

Alicia thanks for your visit. It had to be hard back then with war and depression going on. just to survive the only way they knew.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on January 13, 2021:

This is an interesting and informative article. Thank you for the education about hobos, Fran.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on January 12, 2021:

Rosina, thanks for your visit. I do appreciate it.

Rosina S Khan on January 11, 2021:

It was interesting to know about HOBOs hopping on to trains to find work. That they camped and used signs for their interaction were further intriguing. Thank you for sharing, Fran.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on January 11, 2021:

What an interesting compilation of information. I didn't realize they had shorthand signs but it makes sense. I guess that explains the increase in hitch-hikers on the freeways.



fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on January 11, 2021:

Liz, thanks for your visit and I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on January 11, 2021:

Mike, thanks so much for your visit. And I'm a little too old to hop trains but I imagine many who did had no choice.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on January 11, 2021:

John, thanks for your visit. My husband was a railroad engineer for over 30 yrs. I love trains. Thanks for your comment.

John Coviello from New Jersey on January 11, 2021:

Great article. I've always loved train rides and understood why hobos were attracted to trains. The symbols they used to communicate are facsinating.

Readmikenow on January 11, 2021:

Excellent story. This is a great way to learn about hobo history. People have sent me YouTube videos of individuals who hop trains to get from place to place today. Not something I would do, but I appreciate their efforts. Enjoyed reading this.

Liz Westwood from UK on January 11, 2021:

I have learnt a lot about the life of a hobo from this article.

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