Hobohemia: Riding The Rails

One 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.

Taking this country by and large, it is no exaggeration to say that every night in the year ten thousand free passengers of the tramp genus travel on the different railroads in the ways mentioned, and that ten thousand more are waiting at watering-tanks and in railroad yards for opportunities to get on the trains. I estimate the professional tramp population at about sixty thousand, a third of whom are generally on the move.1 
Full Text

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

'Riding the blinds' meant to ride the front platform of the baggage car on a passenger train. Because baggage was piled up inside, thus blocking the door between cars, it was a relatively secure place to sit. However, if detected, the rider was an easy target "for water hoses or showers of coal or hot ash from the more sadistic firemen."2

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.

how to deck a passenger train In the photo to the left, Jack London demonstrates how to "deck" a passenger train. Riding on top of the cars was dangerous. Not only were you at the mercy of foul weather, but a sharp curve could fling you off if you weren't properly positioned. One shouldn't ride with his back to the approaching tracks: you might be suprised by a shift in direction.

Reefers were refrigerator cars. The danger there was getting locked in. Hostile bulls were heard to lock the reefer doors from the outside, trapping trespassers inside to freeze to death. Experienced riders might carry a piece of wood to keep the door from locking shut. Some also rode the pilot or front grid.

Riding the rods was by far the most dangerous occupation and as such, was a rite of passage for a true hobo.

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

riding the rods
  • link to Jack London Rods
  • to catch a train
  • davies

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
  • Sticks: Train rider who lost a leg.
  • Peg: Train rider who lost a foot.
  • Fingy or Fingers: Train rider who lost one or more fingers.
  • Blinky: Train rider who lost one or both eyes.
  • Wingy: Train rider who lost one or both arms.
  • Mitts: Train rider who lost one or both hands.
  • Righty: Train rider who lost right arm and leg.
  • Lefty: Train rider who lost left arm and leg.
  • Halfy: Train rider who lost both legs below knee.
  • Straight Crip: Actually crippled or otherwise afflicted.
  • Phoney Crip: Self-mutilated or simulating a deformity.

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.
I planned a trip to Omaha with a lad of my own age. We left the Northwestern station one night just after dark. Bill had beaten his way on mail trains before.
We waited a few hundred feet from the station, until the train was well on its way. The engine came thundering down the track at a fast rate of speed, and rolled by our hiding place with a great blowing of steam and shrieking of whistle. The engine and first coach were enveloped in white and dark clouds of smoke and steam. We felt our way through the clouds and were soon aboard the train.
My heart beat fast with the thrill of adventure. We reached De Kalb without mishap, and ran for a dark place to hide while the train stopped at the depot. When the engine steamed away, we were aboard the first blind. Another man was there ahead of us.
Great clouds of steam and smoke fell all around us. A faded yellow moon would now and then shine through the vapour. The train ran a few miles until it came to a siding. It stopped for a signal, and was slowly starting up again when the third person spoke. "You guys hold up your hands," he said, as he pointed a long, dark revolver at us.
We did as we were told, and the man hastily handcuffed our wrists together. "We'll ride nice and easy on into Clinton, 'Boes, and I'll see that you get the rock pile for a couple o' months."6

Part III: The World of Tomorrow