Riding the Rails Without a Safety Net
In the novel Bluesman, Lemuel enjoyed a transient life as a musician. Falling in love with the zealous late nights and early mornings inside Juke houses, filled to the rim with untamed woman, distilled spirits, and high stakes gambling. — consequences be damned. Huckleberry Finn, too, loved the uninhibited living of a destitute vagabond. Surviving by stealing food and avoiding the domestication of societal living. He considered it a righteous life.
Similarly life of a Hobo in America during the early 20th century was arduous and still incredibly adventurous. The examples of people, historically and fictionally, who’ve traded in the comfort and security of home life for the unknown perils of road life are numerous. What does this lifestyle provide that pulls so many into its arms? Why was it so intoxicating? Why do these men and women risk their lives for a freedom away from the constraints of society? It must be that the allure of the road provides a rush that cannot be attained elsewhere; that can’t be found living a conservative lifestyle.
Following the dysfunction of the civil war, soldiers returning home took to the rails. A stationary life was no longer satisfactory afterward. Besides being unfulfilling and dull stationary life left many without jobs and adequate compensation for survival. Those looking for work used the railroad to travel the frontier in search of employment. As opportunities for an honest living withered away leading up to the great depression the practicalities of vagabond living blossomed. Between 1906 and 1911 the recorded number of hobos rose from 500,000 to 700,000 (Washington Post). “I loved it,” Walter Ballard said. “It’ll get in your blood. [Even if] you’re not going anywhere. You don’t care. You just ride. Surviving day to day in a life for all its horrors [would] also engender astonishing delights (Wasserman).”
It wasn’t all sun flowers and daffodils either, an indication of how dire their alternatives were at the time. Homeless rail road riders encountered more than the freewheeling existence they were after. Their side of the fence was met by danger and strife too. Riders were always on the lookout for train yard crews or “Bulls,” as they were “admirably” coined. A hobo rail rider during the period, W. Ballard said, “I’ve been hijacked in the yards by the railroad bulls [guards], and, boy, they’d get rough with you, too” (Ganzel). Crewmen were more than hostile towards individuals sneaking onto their train cars. “Bulls” were even incentivized by the railway to prevent free riders. Bulls went as far as dishing out beatings to whomever they caught sneaking on.
Avoiding “Bully” crewman weren’t riders’ only obstacle. They needed to avoid being killed by the train itself. “Most hobos would hide along the tracks… as the train gained speed, migrant individuals grabbed hold and jumped into open boxcars.” Often, they slipped off or even missed entirely. A lot of drifters lost legs or their lives. “As the train was reaching its destination, the hobos had to jump off before a new set of bulls came to arrest them or beat them up” (allvoices.com). Freedom wasn’t free and riders often paid a hefty penance.
Some would get trapped between cars and freeze to death during increment weather. Others “were also known to get locked in a freezer car where they would be found frozen to death” (allvoices.com). It took courage and cunning to survive such a treacherous life every day.
Knowing they would need to evade death or assault, they learned to be self-sufficient and world class survivors. Not knowing where they would sleep or eat the next night added another layer of hardship. None of that swayed them from pushing forward. The next town with interesting people, exiting experiences, and thrilling stories mattered more.
“Running alongside until I’m moving almost as fast as the train, I make my play, hooking on to the ladder at the front end of a car, perhaps the tenth in the string. My foot finds a stirrup. There I cling until I catch my breath. I climb halfway up the side of the car–and stop. When the panic subsides, I consider dropping off but, looking down at the ties spinning away, realize that the train is already rolling too fast. There’s no choice. I’m going to have to deck it, ride the top.” (Wasserman)
by Jeremy L. Pasker