The Machine Age: The Roll of the Rails

The call of adventure and lure of the road is not to be ignored in the history of the hobo. The development of the railroad itself allowed young men with the urge to see the world a method of getting far from home, to see the new frontier, to seek opportunity out west. Even more than pure adventure, however, the growth of the railroad meant jobs. After the Civil War the rebuilding of the rail system, plus the accelerated push across the continent, meant jobs.

Up to 1873, there were railroad jobs anywhere for men who could swing hammers and stand the wear and tear. They lived in railcars, on Texas beef and locally shot buffalo meat. Three strokes to a spike, four rails to a minute - the graders ahead broke the soil and rock and made the bed, the ties and rails were dropped from the horse-drawn rail dolly, and the parts spiked and bolted into position.1

The drive of industry westward, the building of the railroad, mines, sheep and cattle ranches, orchards, the development of the timber industry, all of these jobs called for a special kind of worker. These new industries required men who would go far from home, from family and civilization. It required men to do seasonal work, irregular work, men who were able to pick up and pack off and move on the next job when one was over and the next job beginning. The workers had to be mobile and adaptable.2


In the early days of railroad expansion, the railroad companies often turned a blind-eye to many a man riding a train. They acknowledged that the men were going west to do work that would ultimately help the rail lines: to develop the timber operations, to work in the mines that would produce the goods that the trains would ultimately carry. In times of economic distress, however, such as the crash of 1873 and its subsequent depression, the population of train hoppers increased, and that leniency disappeared. The art and culture of train hopping began to develop.

Big-spending and now spent-up construction men, firemen on strike and freight brakemen dumped by bankrupt or ailing lines, loggers with their axes hocked and miners without a market, all were heading all ways, to anywhere that rumor attributed pay packets, and for the first time these new unemployed began riding the trains they themselves had manned, or whose tracks they had laid, or whose trucks they had filled. The tramp was in a hurry, and as he began to steal his lifts on the freights he began to turn himself into the hobo.3

By the 1890s, a tramp class had been born; this the public, the railroads, and the sociologists knew. Wanderlust, a romance with trains, drink, and industrial depression were all touted as reasons for the tramp. Whatever the reason - or reasons - his existence beyond the pale would soon give rise to a distinct culture, a sub-culture that would capture the country's imagination, and continue to be an object of social study.

Part II: Hobohemia