Riding the Rails

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Riding the Rails

It was 1932 in the United States. Hard times of the Great Depression had hit. Pulling into a rail yard of a small town on an early misty morning was a long freight train. Even before the train came to a complete stop, shadowy figures began jumping from boxcars to the gravel below. Not five or six but sixty or more tumbled from the train with small bundles in hand. Many of their faces were not lined with age; they were the fresh faces of America's youth. Many were teenagers—teenagers "on the bum." They were part of an army of youthful transients, numbering roughly 250,000, who were riding the rails through America.

Along the rails homeless boys and a scattering of girls experienced adventure, awesome glimpses of the American countryside, and a thrilling sense of freedom. But they also experienced hunger, danger, boredom, despair, and hostile railroad security guards known as the "bulls." Three out of four of America's wandering young people said the hard times of the Great Depression caused them to "hit the road."

The crash of the U.S. stock market in October 1929 signaled the start of the most severe economic crisis in U.S. history. By 1932 and early 1933 many banks had closed, manufacturing had slowed greatly, and millions of people had lost their jobs, money, and homes. Twenty-five percent of American workers were unemployed. Almost everyone suffered some decrease in income. For some Americans—both young and older—the answer was to take to the road in hopes of securing work in another part of the nation. By 1933 the size of the transient population was estimated to be between two and three million, including hundreds of thousands riding the rails.

Beginning in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) made an effort to provide help and support for the nation's wandering population. The Roosevelt administration created special emergency legislation—called the New Deal—to address the nation's economic problems, including the transient population. The New Deal programs established by this legislation offered various forms of relief and care services, jobs on public works projects (such as road building and forest maintenance), a network of transient shelters, and education opportunities. Ultimately, because of the size of the transient population, these programs could reach only a small percentage of the wanderers. The army of transients would continue to roam through the 1930s, the length of the Great Depression.

Increasing numbers on the rails

During the 1920s people who rode the rails were either seasonal workers or permanent transients called hoboes (or tramps or bums). The hoboes were not in search of jobs; instead they sought a detachment from mainstream American society. They were content to live a life of aimless wandering. Seasonal workers traveled from state to state, working on farms as various crops were ready for harvest. Through the 1920s, the railroad police reported that on any given transcontinental freight train about six to eight men would be hitching a ride. By the early 1930s, railroad police reported swarms of transients, up to two or three hundred per train—many of them young boys.

Because transients were constantly on the move, no accurate estimate of their number was ever available. But by 1932 it was estimated that 250,000 youths between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five were riding the rails. Roughly one in twenty American youths had left home. Why had so many young Americans, some no more than twelve years of age, opted for life on the rails?

Reasons for leaving home

In the 1930s American youths were not in revolt against the government, nor were they revolting against their parents. Most of them left home because they felt they were a burden to their family. Many came from well-to-do families. Others were from families that had always struggled with poverty. As unemployment struck family after family during the Depression, young people of almost every economic class watched as their fathers unsuccessfully searched for work. The boys themselves had often looked for work in their hometown for months, even several years, before leaving. With their families stretching to make ends meet, the boys decided they were just one more mouth to feed. They decided to hit the road in search of work. If lucky enough to find work, they would send money home.

The economic hardships brought on by the Great Depression significantly affected schools. The loss of jobs and income by residents of an area meant fewer taxes were being paid to local governments. A decrease in taxes paid meant smaller budgets for schools. As a result many schools had to shorten their school year or close altogether because they could not afford to pay teachers. A substantial percentage of teenage youths were not attending high school. Under normal conditions most young people would have been in school or working, but the 1930s were not normal times. Some boys hit the road with their parents' blessings to search for a job and a better life.

Another reason for leaving home was to seek adventure. With no work available and summertime school breaks dragging on, Depression-era days in an ordinary town could be boring for teens. Life on the road, riding the rails, seemed to offer great adventure. Many teens from eastern states could not resist the temptation to head west, where incredible sights and cities awaited; the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, and Los Angeles all beckoned. Western teens looked east and set the Statue of Liberty as their goal. Two popular destinations were the 1933 Chicago World's Fair and the 1936 Texas Centennial Fair. The adventure seekers often had practiced riding the rails for months before they left. With their buddies they would hop a freight train to a nearby town and back. This would build up their courage and give them experience for making a longer trip. Town newspapers frequently reported on their local "boes" (short for "hoboes") who took off to see the country. Even the dangers and hardships they reported sounded thrilling to young people forced to be idle by the circumstances of the Depression. Of course, the adventure-seeking "boes" had a home to return to, and generally they did return after six weeks or so. This could not be said for the majority of young transients, who had left home with the serious purpose of finding work and who felt that returning would only burden their families.

By 1932 youths riding the rails had become a wandering army of thousands. Hopping on a moving freight train as it started up for distant places gave them a thrilling sense of freedom. Yet few were prepared for the dangers, hunger, and hardships that awaited them.

Food and a place to rest

Along the Southern Pacific Railroad route, small towns in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona reported several hundred transients arriving daily. Los Angeles became a magnet, with eight thousand passing through monthly. The number of daily arrivals stretched available resources of food and shelter. City relief agencies did not want to spend scarce local revenues on nonresidents. It was hard enough caring for their own citizens who were out of work and hungry. Hence finding food and a place to rest when they left the train became a daily concern for transient teenagers.

Gradually the youths learned where a meal and a bed could be had. In larger towns the Salvation Army, missions, and city shelters provided meals and beds. Privately sponsored breadlines provided simple meals such as beans, bread, and coffee. The beds at the Salvation Army were clean, but most other accommodations were dirty. Sheets might not have been washed for weeks and were sometimes full of lice or fleas. Beds might be pieces of linoleum on springs or even the tables that had just been used for meals.

On the outskirts of towns and in rural areas, camps called "jungles" were found in brush or trees along the railroad tracks. Flimsy shacks and piles of cans, glass, and other garbage marked camp locations. The camps were often located by a stream or pond used for washing and obtaining drinking water. The water was frequently contaminated and caused illnesses. Broken mirrors hung from trees to use for shaving. The ground was generally the only bed available, and it was not uncommon for rats to run over a sleeping transient. Hunting for twigs or other wood to keep campfires burning during cold weather was a constant task. Sometimes great crowds of boys huddled and slept close by the fires.

If food was not available from overburdened relief houses, finding enough to eat consumed waking hours. Hunger spells sometimes lasted for several days. Various strategies for survival had to be learned. Usually an experienced hobo who had been riding the rails for years served as a teacher for the young transients. For example, experienced hoboes taught that when going to private homes to ask for food, the best approach was knocking at the back door rather than at the front. Often the transient would offer to work for food or money (the work usually involved duties like chopping wood, but little else; inexperienced youths rarely earned enough money to send home). Sometimes families would take pity on a hungry youth and offer a meal and a place to sleep. Then, with the piece of chalk that was always kept in his pocket, the young transient would make a special mark: Somewhere outside the family's house he would write "18"—which was meant to read "I ate." This was a signal to other hoboes that the house was a good place to stop. Transients had developed a language of chalk markings or symbols known only to other transients. Their symbols marked where one could find a meal, where to go if sick, safe camps, clean water, and dangerous towns. If a youth obtained only scraps of leftovers from his ventures into town, he would return to the camp, where the other hoboes might have a mulligan stew boiling. Mulligan stew was made with any scrap of food available.

Hobo Language

Transients developed their own colorful language to describe the hobo life. Along the rails the following words described the activities and people in this wandering world:

Catching out:

Hopping on a freight train.


A longtime, experienced hobo.


Physically attacked or assaulted.


An individual new to hoboing.

Grab iron:

The vertical railing on a train car, which a hobo could catch hold of.

Hitting the Stem:

Going to Main Street.

Hobo tobacco:

Dried leaves crushed and rolled in a cigarette.


People who are not transients; the general public.

Hoover tourist:

A transient; as the term implies, people blamed President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33) for the economic problems that led to increased numbers of transients.

Jungle buzzards:

Hoboes who lived at a camp for weeks or months at a time.


Transient camps along the rails where hoboes could stop to rest, wash, and cook.

Knee shaker:

A plate of food given to a hobo—to be eaten while sitting on the back porch of a house with the plate resting on his knees.


A handout of a sack of food.

Mulligan stew:

A soup composed of whatever food scraps can be obtained, boiled over a campfire.

On the fly:

Catching hold of a moving train.

Railroad bulls:

Railroad police hired to get transients off railroad property.


Refrigerator car with an ice compartment that provided a place to ride; reefers also provided drinking water from the water dripping below the car.


The Salvation Army, an organization that provided temporary food and shelter.


An invitation to come inside a house and eat with the family.


Transients with a criminal nature.

Dangers on the rails

The hazards of riding the rails were many and could be fatal. The Interstate Commerce Commission reported that approximately twenty-five thousand transients were killed and twenty-seven thousand injured on trains or in railroad yards between 1929 and 1939. Most of the hundreds of thousands of young people "catching out" (hopping on a freight train) were new at "hoboing." New, inexperienced hoboes, called "gaycats," had to learn how to ride the different train cars if they hoped to ever become "dingbats," real hoboes.

Relatively safe places to ride were in empty boxcars, at the ends of hopper cars (freight cars that can quickly discharge their loads through their bottom), and straddling the coupling between two cars while hanging on to the brake rod, a pole running vertically up the end of the car. However, if a transient accidentally stepped on the cutting lever (the device that can uncouple or detach rail cars from each other) between the cars, the train would automatically brake, throwing him off, injuring the train crew and others on the train, and damaging merchandise in the cars. The ice compartment of a reefer (refrigerator car) was a fine place to ride as long as the compartment door was carefully propped open. Otherwise the door would shut, trapping the transient behind the thick insulated walls. However, even with the door propped open, there was still danger that a trainman might fill the compartment with ice and crush the transient. Very dangerous places to ride were on the rods under cars and on top of a loose load in an open boxcar (the load could shift at any time and crush the rider). Riding on top of a closed freight car also had several disadvantages. The hobo could roll off or be suffocated as the smoke-belching train passed through a long, narrow train tunnel. Also, the railroad "bulls" (police) could easily spot someone atop a car. Knowing that transients would always choose boxcars first, railroad companies often added extra empty boxcars to the train to avoid injuries, loss of life, and damage to merchandise.

Transients hopping trains faced arrest if caught by the "bulls." Bulls never threw transients off moving trains, for fear of lawsuits, but they arrested them as soon as trains came to a stop in the yard. Transients could even be arrested for hanging around the rail yard. Sometimes bulls beat the wanderers. Railroad bulls and town police were at odds over what to do about the situation. Railroad bulls would pull transients off trains, but town police would put them back on, demanding they move to the next town. This experience was known among hoboes as "passing on." Sometimes boys caught in the freight yards or wandering in town would be arrested and thrown in jail. While in jail they were forced to do hard labor on chain gangs.

Other common hazards of the rails posed extreme danger for the inexperienced rider. Train wrecks and getting thrown off by sudden turns and stops killed many. Assaults by other transients seeking food or money—or simply out of frustration—occurred frequently. Younger boys were easy prey for older, seasoned transients. Transients also suffered from exposure and undernourishment (transients often went two or three days without food). Medical care in towns was only offered to the seriously ill or injured, to discourage transients from stopping there for help.

Girls, young women, and black Americans were particularly susceptible to the dangers of hobo life on the rails. Females rode the rails in far fewer numbers than boys and men. For safety reasons, such as fear of sexual assault, they often disguised themselves as males and traveled with others. In January 1933 of the estimated 256,000 transients riding the rails, only 11,000 were female; 35 to 40 percent of them were under the age of twenty-one. Black Americans, and other minorities, riding the rails faced the same racism that was prevalent throughout the nation in the 1930s. Especially great danger existed in the South, where lynchings (to execute, especially by hanging, without due process of law) were on the rise during the Depression. This threat of danger discouraged many blacks and other minorities from riding the rails. Almost no statistics are available on blacks riding the rails. However, officials in Buffalo, New York, did a study in 1935 of the 20,000 transients that traveled through their city. Of these, only 660 were black Americans.

Besides enduring physical hardships, those who stayed on the rails for months or years paid a heavy psychological price. Grace Abbott (1878–1939), chief of the Children's Bureau for the U.S. Department of Labor, spoke in 1932 of the lost high spirits of the youths. She described how their excitement gradually gave way to hunger, despair, and hopelessness. Abbott called on president-elect Franklin Roosevelt to develop training and work centers and to provide support for youths who were trying to stay in school. Abbott said the social cost of not developing such programs was the destruction of the morale of hundreds of thousands of youths. Roosevelt listened carefully and moved to create a New Deal for young transients. The Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Civilian Conservation Corps Act, and later the National Youth Administration all established programs to aid young Americans.

Federal Emergency Relief Act

Upon taking office in March 1933, President Roosevelt immediately addressed the transient problem, or as it was frequently called, the "youth problem." One of the first acts Congress passed as part of Roosevelt's New Deal program was the Federal Emergency Relief Act, signed into law on May 12, 1933. For the purpose of aiding those in need, including transients and the homeless, the act provided cash to the states to establish relief programs. To help students return to college, the act established an agency to fund a work-study program. Students worked part-time for a monthly payment. For students still in school a student aid program was offered. The average $13-a-month payment was just enough to help students stay in school.

Federal Transient Relief Service

To aid transients of all ages, the Federal Transient Relief Service was established in September 1933. The service set up centers for transients in 250 communities and in 350 work camps in rural areas. These centers provided a meal, a bed, recreation, and study facilities. For those who stayed awhile, the camps provided jobs in road and park maintenance. Besides room and board, camp residents received three dollars a month for spending money. The Transient Relief Service also sent men and women to vocational classes on a wide variety of subjects, such as machinery repair and sewing. By 1935, two hundred thousand transients, one-third of them under twenty-five years of age, were being assisted by the Transient Relief Service. The service was hailed as a tremendous success by social workers, but many Americans argued that it made life too easy for transients, that it encouraged the hoboes' wandering ways. Although the program was just reaching its full effectiveness in late 1935, Congress pulled its funds and the Transient Relief Service closed, except for a few camps that operated until 1937. Transient care between January 1933 and March 1937 cost the federal government over $106 million, including $5 million a month at the service's peak in early 1935.

Civilian Conservation Corps

One of President Roosevelt's favorite programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), officially established on April 5, 1933, only days after the Civilian Conservation Corps Reforestation Act was signed into law. Roosevelt appointed Robert Fechner as CCC director. Fechner proved to be an honest and capable administrator, and he remained at the CCC until his death in 1940. Along with Fechner, an advisory council of representatives from the War, Labor, Agriculture, and Interior Departments oversaw the program.

The purpose of the CCC was to provide jobs for unemployed young men, to provide them food and shelter, to offer instruction in basic work skills, and to make improvements and build facilities on public lands. To join the CCC, enrollees had to be between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five and be single, healthy, and unemployed. They signed up for six months at a time and were expected to go to whatever location and job they were assigned. In return they received a room, food, clothing, and thirty dollars a month, twenty-five of which had to be sent back home to their families, who made good use of the added income. CCC workers kept their other five dollars to buy necessities. Enrollment in the CCC offered a chance to see new parts of the United States. The CCC also gave young people a chance to break free from a poverty-stricken existence at home.

Youths riding the rails rushed to sign up. Many of those signing up were in the East, South, and Midwest; most of the projects and camps were to be located in the West. The U.S. Army was the only organization capable of moving thousands of enrollees from sign-up centers to work camps in the West. Therefore, the army was involved with the CCC from the start. Within only a few months 240,000 youths had settled into approximately twelve hundred camps. The army created a military type of organization with officers and enrollees. Officers from the army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and navy worked together to temporarily command camps. During the day most enrollees worked with the National Park Service, Forest Service, Soil Conservation Service, or Grazing Service. Projects included reforestation (planting trees), road construction, construction of structures on federal lands, prevention of soil erosion, and flood control projects. After work the CCC men lived under army regulations in camps with tents or simple wooden barracks; they ate in mess halls (a place where meals are served to a group). Many CCC facilities looked like army barracks.

As the CCC developed, education programs became available at most of the camps. Attending classes at night, many young men received high school diplomas. On-the-job training helped the men master many skills, such as engine repair and construction of roads, bridges, fences, and structures (including barracks, ranger stations, barns, and fire lookouts). Acquiring skills in carpentry, wiring, plumbing, and stone masonry prepared the workers for lifetime careers.

The CCC program was also extended to American Indians, whose economic hardships had been largely ignored in the past. In addition to the typical conservation projects, American Indians were assigned to work on projects that aided in protecting their heritage. For example, members of the Haida and Tlingit tribes of southeast Alaska restored totem poles and built new ones in the Tongass National Forest. Before the CCC was terminated in 1941, more than fifteen thousand American Indians had enrolled in the CCC-ID (Indian Division).

The CCC also drew a substantial response from black Americans. The CCC developed eighty-three all-black camps in twelve Southern states and 151 integrated camps elsewhere in the country. By 1940 more than three hundred thousand black Americans had enrolled in the camps.

At the height of its existence, the CCC employed five hundred thousand men in twenty-six hundred camps. One of the most successful programs launched by the federal government in response to the Great Depression, the CCC lasted from 1933 to 1941, when the United States became involved with World War II (1939–45).

National Youth Administration

When funding for the Transient Service ended in 1935, President Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide massive work relief programs. Within the WPA, Roosevelt created the National Youth Administration (NYA); he appointed Aubrey Williams (1890–1965) as director. To keep youths in school and off the rails the agency provided aid to high school and college students. The NYA provided six dollars a month for needy high school students, twenty dollars a month for college students, and forty dollars a month for college graduate students. In return the students worked part-time, generally at school-related jobs such as custodial work. For young people who had already left school, the NYA offered opportunities to participate in building community and recreation centers. The NYA served young women as well as men. The agency set up fifty camps specifically designed for young women and provided them with technical and professional job training such as sewing and school lunch preparation. Other work projects sponsored by the NYA were in schools and hospitals. Over 581,000 youths had received cash aid from the NYA by 1936, including 19,000 black American youths under the Negro Affairs branch. Although it was one of the most responsive New Deal programs for minorities, the NYA barely touched the more than 400,000 black Americans between the ages of fourteen and sixteen who were in need of work.

Private organizations also sought to aid young people and support the government's New Deal programs. In 1936 advocates for youth asked Congress to pass the American Youth Act, which had been developed to replace the NYA. In response to the numerous public schools that had closed in the early 1930s as a result of the Great Depression, the act would have guaranteed the availability of free public education for students and would have given living expenses of at least fifteen dollars a month to needy students. Because of budget cuts, the American Youth Act never made it to the floor of Congress for a vote. Distressed by the lack of action on this legislation, supporters held a pro-youth march in Washington, D.C., in February 1937. In the end this march saved the NYA from congressional budget cutting.

Despite the efforts of the NYA, the CCC, and other New Deal programs, thousands of youths still rode the rails. The programs reached only a small percentage of the wandering population. As a result, for many Americans work would not become available until late 1941, when the United States prepared to enter World War II (1939–45).

For More Information


Anderson, Nels. On Hobos and Homelessness. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Cole, Olen, Jr. The African American Experience in the Civilian ConservationCorps. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1999.

Davis, Kingsley. Youth in the Depression. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1935.

Davis, Maxine. The Lost Generation: A Portrait of American Youth Today. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1936.

Douglas, George H. All Aboard! The Railroad in American Life. New York, NY: Paragon House, 1992.

Guthrie, Woody. Bound for Glory. New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1943.

McEntee, James J. Now They Are Men: The Story of the CCC. Washington, DC: National Home Library Foundation, 1940.

Meltzer, Milton. Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The Great Depression,1929–1933. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

Merrill, Perry H. Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933–1942. Montpelier, VT: Perry H. Merrill, 1981.

Minehan, Thomas. Boy and Girl Tramps of America. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1976 (originally published in 1934).

Reitman, Ben L. Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Box-Car Bertha. New York, NY: Sheridan House, 1937.

Uys, Errol L. Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move during the Great Depression. New York, NY: TV Books, 2000.


Fawcett, John E. "A Hobo Memoir, 1936." Indiana Magazine of History 90, no. 4 (1994): pp. 351–365.

Web Sites

Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni.http://www.cccalumni.org (accessed on August 15, 2002).

Hobo News.http://www.hobo.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).

Riding the Rails.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/rails/ (accessed on August 15, 2002).