Riding the Rails


 By Larry Stessin


Courtesy of the National Archives


In the depths of the Great Depression, hoboes climb he catwalk of a passing freight, circa 1932.




Walking the rails.



Photo by John Vachonx


Hopping a freight train in search of the elusive dream.



Riding the Rails

By Larry Stessin

"One evening as the sun went down 
And the jungle fire was burning  
Down the track came a hobo hiking 

And he said, "Boys I'm not turning -  
I'm heading for a land that's far away, 

Beside the crystal fountain.  
So, come with me; we'll go and see 

Big Rock Candy Mountain."

The Big Rock Candy Mountain, a famous old hobo poem


In song and story the American hobo was a true romantic, a knight of the

open road who crisscrossed this country with a pack on his shoulder and a few coins

jingling in his jeans. He was drawn as a free spirited rover dedicated to a simple world of milk and honey. To ballad makers Hobohemia was a fanciful Valhalla of strumming

guitars and "bazoo blowers" whose harmonicas, corroded with tobacco juice, made

raucous music to the accompaniment of grinding wheels and hissing steam. It was this

false romanticism that lured me to ride the rails rather than sell apples on a street corner during the depression of 1932.


It was a very dark night when I approached a stationary freight train on the

west side of Manhattan. Young and supple from years of Harlem handball, I leaped into an open cattle car lighted only by the tiny beacons of harsh smelling stogies. There was no conversation only the sounds of multiple snoring. The absence of the human voice was, as every professional vagabond knew, a barrier against alerting the '' bull", as was the lingo for railroad police. In minutes I heard the toot-toot of a whistle and the clang of a bell which I knew from my younger days of playing hide and seek or hookey in the freight yards near Hell's Kitchen, that the deadline had come for the wheels to track the cargo wherever.


Once the train settled down to a steady speed I crawled towards a vacant

corner and joined the snoozers. It was daybreak when the shadows I first saw when I vaulted the freight car turned into two dozen seedy-clothed men sprawled on a floor covered with straw and old soggy newspapers pounded into the shape f pillows. I experienced no anxiety in my new environment, having seen and hooted box car bums since I was a sixth grader.


When the train stopped near Buffalo most of the riders quickly jumped out

and ran for a nearby stream to splash water on their stub-grown faces, refill their bottles with fresh water and scurry back to the choo-choo. Others remained in the car to indulge in a tipple or two out of smudged covered flasks. The hoot from the engine gave me enough time to scoot back and three from our clique showed the agility of trapeze artists in hurdling into the boxcar while the train was picking up steam.


At the end of the first week, I was well up-and-up on the routines of hobo life. Surprisingly, I learned that few rod riders began their "careers'' with the objective of being constantly on the road. For the most part their initial goal was to take a long trip to nowhere in particular and return home after having sated their craving for wanderlust. But, in short order their money dwindled to smaller and smaller coins and the knowledge that the depression seemed forever made getting a job back home "pie in the sky" all adding up to their continued itinerary.


Getting food other than by stealing from a mama-papa shop, or an A&P store

which often displayed its fruits and vegetables on sidewalks, was a daily challenge.

In cities, an honest-to-goodness hobo would shun the missions run by the charities or by public agencies. The chief beef was the long waits, the large number of drunks on the line and the complete corruption of mother's tasty cooking. The number one no-no was the Salvation Army which often required the hungry to work several hours washing floors or dishes before being fed.


I hit upon a technique that rarely left me without supper and often enough

for a bite the following morning. I would walk down a street of middle-class, homes and look for a driveway with two or more cars in it. These were the days of a very fragile economy and two cars in every garage was a myth. To me more than one auto parked by the house meant that the residents were having guests for dinner. 1 would walk into the backyard, ring the bell and when someone appeared at the door, in louder than my usual voice would ask, "Do you have any work for a young hungry man?" Few folks were so hardened as to shoo me away while the guests pressed their noses against the windows to catch a glimpse of the sad voiced beggar. Soon, out came a sandwich or a plateful of food which I gobbled down while sitting on the porch steps.


My other most important daily need was to find a safe place to sleep. An

empty cattle car which sometimes could accommodate over fifty riders was always a Godsend. Sometimes there was room enough to squeeze into a space where a car could be carrying some freight or livestock. Other than that there were three alternatives all dangerous. One was to wedge oneself beneath the iron rods underneath a car. Another was to swiftly scoot up a ladder and stretch out on the boards on top of the speeding freight carrier and sleep as the train pitched from side to side. Or, if one chose a passenger train, the place for a hobo to sleep was standing between the blinds, with elbows bent around the rods which held the thick, black leather shades - barriers against a howling wind.

My mind was constantly concerned where to find safer places to sleep. If mileage and a specific destination was not a goal there were always hobo jungles where one could nap to a warming fire. However, hobo jungles were always at the mercy of the local police or the railway patrolmen.


It was the hobo grapevine from "bo's" coming and going which provided what was safest. Jails. It seemed that almost every town or farm area had vagrancy laws, legislation to keep the unwanted, the shiftless, the beggars from besmirching the image of hometown. The average penalty if caught and convicted was three months in jail. That was a hefty sentence for a restless tribe to take. From the rumors and gossip in the boxcars there was endless talk that vagrancy laws were not being enforced in most of the country. Cities and towns by the hundreds because of the depression, did not have the will or the budgets for the shiftless by jailing them for months at a time. This was music to my ears and one day I decided to put this good news to a test.


My testing ground happened to be Dearborn, Michigan where Ford cars were built. I decided to take the bold approach although the policeman I walked up to did not need any tutoring to see that I was not a native. I shuffled up to him and asked for a handout "for a cup of coffee.'' He grabbed my arm and escorted me to a jailhouse a few blocks away. The warden took over and shoved me into a cell in which there were three others. I was surprised at the appearance of the jail. It was spotless. The walls were wallpapered and an aroma of sweet smelling cleanser filled the room. The warden ordered us to a corner of the cell. He then lifted a thin mattress from one of the cots and said, "This is Henry Ford's town, the cleanest in the country. And this jail is the cleanest in the country.'' And with that comment he shook the mattress vigorously and said, "See, no mice, no lice." He seemed pleased at how he poetized the two words. I later learned that Henry Ford was a spirited community citizen who often preached the sermon that Dearborn should strive to be the cleanest city in the nation. He sometimes visited the jails to make sure that the decor did not spoil the region's look.


The next day I was let out, hustled into a paddy wagon which made the rounds

of the other jails for other bad eggs, like me, dumped at the county line and admonished never to return again.


When I returned to the "jungle'' and told the others that the vagrancy laws

were indeed unenforced, they chimed in that they were receiving similar amnesty in

other parts of the country, but minus the grandiloquence. I had found at least one

way to get a night's sleep without the terror of injury or worse.


When I ended my hobo safari I often felt that the romance I had envisioned

was no more than a long tiresome hitchhike.



Lawrence A. Stessin, an alumni of the New York Times and Forbes Magazine, was the former editor of the Silurian News. Shortly before his death, he confided to me that he had "killed a man" who jumped him in an open box car when he had fallen asleep eating a sandwich. As Larry struggled with his knife-wielding assailant, the attacker fell backward out of the box car. When the train pulled into the next town, Larry learned that a body had been found beside the tracks. The Editor