Riding the Rails 1929-1941

views updated

Riding the Rails 1929-1941

Issue Summary
Contributing Forces
Notable People
Primary Sources
Suggested Research Topics
See Also


The crash of the stock market in October 1929 followed by the Great Depression brought considerable economic suffering to millions of Americans. Many lost their jobs or saw their incomes reduced. Schools reduced the length of school years in many areas or closed altogether. By early 1933 over 12 million workers were unemployed amounting to almost 25 percent of the U.S. workforce and hundreds of thousands of children were out of school. Three million of those jobless were also young, between 16 and 25 years of age. Seeing no hope for employment where they lived, many of all ages decided to take to the rails jumping on freight and passenger trains without paying and riding them to various parts of the nation. Most were in search of better job opportunities elsewhere so they could send money back home, while others were looking for adventure. No longer a world of middle aged men, the rails brigade now included thousands of youths, some as young as 13 years of age, and increasing numbers of women and minorities. Along the way they met adventure, hunger, hardship, hostile security guards and law authorities, danger, boredom, and despair, as well as many other people doing the same.

Between 1933 and 1938 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (served 1933–1945) introduced the New Deal, a large array of social and economic programs designed to combat the Great Depression and provide relief to those most affected. The New Deal made special efforts to provide support for the sudden growth in the nation's wandering or transient population. New Deal programs that addressed the transient included the Federal Transient Service, the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the National Youth Administration (NYA) within the WPA. Each of these programs offered various forms of relief and care services, including jobs on public projects, a network of transient shelters, and education programs. But given the size of the transient population—estimated at two to three million in early 1933, including 250,000 riding the rails—most any effort would ultimately only reach a small percentage. Therefore that assistance would only last temporarily before they were once again out looking for work in private business. Just as the Great Depression lingered through the 1930s, so did the large number of individuals riding the rails across America.

Issue Summary

A Flood of Transients

As the Great Depression worsened through 1930 and 1931, private charities and local relief agencies that had assisted transients in the past several decades were overwhelmed. By 1933 12 million people were out of work as the unemployment rate hit 25 percent. The Great Depression brought not only high unemployment rates but closed many schools as well. Millions of children were affected by shortened school years in the 1933–34 school year. Approximately five thousand schools had closed altogether, affecting 175,000 children. By 1934 there were 25,000 fewer teachers than in 1930, and by 1935, 40 percent of the 10 million high school aged youth in America were out of school. In rural school districts it was up to 60 percent. Success in finding a job for youth both out of school and in school was highly elusive. In New York State in 1934 almost 80 percent of the 16 year olds seeking jobs were unsuccessful. The New York Committee on Unemployed Youth published a handbook on the problem of jobs and schools titled "Youth Never Comes Again."


With a rise in homelessness and transience brought on by the Great Depression, a group of citizens and social workers establish the National Committee on Care for Transients and Homeless (NCCTH) to provide solutions to the problem and lobby Congress.
January 1933:
Estimates provided to Congress by various organizations including the NCCTH reveal that well over one million Americans are now homeless and almost one-fourth are riding the rails. Youth comprising 40 percent of that number.
April 1933:
President Franklin Roosevelt tackles the problem of jobless male youth by creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which will provide jobs for young adults over the next 12 years.
September 1933:
The Federal Transient Service is established and creates almost six hundred relief centers for transients including those living on the rails.
November 1933:
Roosevelt creates the Civil Works Administration to provide temporary work for transients and other jobless individuals through the winter months.
September 1935:
The Federal Transient Service is terminated, transferring those capable of working to work relief on Work Progress Administration (WPA) projects.
As part of the WPA, the National Youth Administration (NYA) is established to help youth stay in school and provide work for those who are not.

The Great Depression caused major changes in the nation's homeless and transient population in various ways. The most obvious change was in the increasing number of people roaming the nation's rails and roads. In January 1933 the National Committee on Care of Transient and Homeless conducted a survey of public and private agencies in 809 cities to determine how many were being cared for during a specific three-day period. Their count came to over 370,000 homeless population. Based on this figure it was estimated that the total homeless population, including those not receiving shelter or care during the three-day period, was 1,225,000. Some thought that there could be as many as two or three million homeless. It was further estimated that half of the homeless were transients with many of those riding the rails. In February 1935 federal facilities were providing care for over 300,000 homeless including over 36,000 families. With the transient population changing daily and being highly mobile no accurate estimates were ever available.

The reasons for transience also changed with the Depression. A primary reason for transience before the Depression was to escape from society's norms. Now people were looking toward going to another place with better job opportunities and starting a new life as productive members of society. Instead of trying to escape the American Dream that consists of financial security with a house, family, and community attachment, they were searching for it. These new transients mingled with the veteran transients making for a much more diverse transient population.

Hopping a train was clearly a new experience for many in the Great Depression, especially the youth. In 1927 over 50 percent of transients thrown off railroad property were men in their forties or older. By 1932, 75 percent of those accused of trespassing were under 25 years of age. In that year it was estimated 250,000 youth between the ages of 15 and 25 were riding the rails, and one in 20 American youth had left home.

The numbers of transients arriving daily in communities stretched available food supplies and shelters. By 1931 Deming, New Mexico, was seeing 125 transients arrive each day. Tucson, Arizona, had approximately 250 arrivals each day, most less than 21 years of age. In 1932 five thousand transients a month were traveling through New Orleans, most of them youth, a figure also reported in Houston. Kansas City reported seven hundred youths on freight trains a day, and three hundred hitchhiking by car. Los Angeles counted 11,000 transients arriving each month, and city relief agencies did not want to spend local tax revenues on non-residents. State assistance to the communities was very limited. President Herbert Hoover's (served 1929–1933) administration offered little relief and almost no support for transients and youth.

California was the destination for many where they sought migrant farm work. In response the state setup work camps to provide workers for local businesses and farmers. But before long, with state revenues falling due to the economic crisis of the Depression, California was going broke and urged the federal government to deal with the transients. The communities were having a difficult time caring for their own residents affected by the Depression and did not wish to assist those arriving from elsewhere. Towns began setting limits on how long a transient could stay and the practice grew of "passing on" transients to the next community. In "passing on," transients, hopping off trains, would be told to get back on and leave town, or if already in town were sometimes given a meal and a night's shelter then told to leave by the police. Some towns sought to discourage transients jumping off trains in their town by arresting them and sentencing them to 20 days in jail. They were often released, however, after only two days and told to leave town.

Many transients favored riding the rails over hitchhiking along the country's roads. Getting to the next town was slower by car particularly given the condition of many roads in this early period of automobile use. Also rides usually gained by hitchhiking were only for short distances, which required a lot more effort because a hitchhiker would have to catch a series of multiple rides toward a destination. There was always the uncertainty of actually finding a ride whereas trains ran on schedules. In addition rides through the night were rare compared to the routine availability of all-night rides on trains. Hitchhiking would also leave a person away from the series of transient camps along rail lines or shelters in town centers. Perhaps most importantly, a hitchhiker was largely on his own, susceptible to the dangers of meeting up with the wrong people. Riding on trains made a transient part of an army with sometimes several hundred transients on a single train.

Thousands of those riding the rails would follow the agricultural harvest cycle across the country for six or seven months out of the year. Such a cycle could include: the early spring vegetable and citrus crops in California; then hay harvest in interior California and the Mountain states in early summer; corn next ripened in the Midwest in summer; berries, hops, and fruits in the Northwest in the fall; and, during winter, the cotton fields of the Southeast. Transients found the work hard and wages at poverty levels. They would try to save enough money to make it through winter. As the Depression deepened, however, many crops became worthless because there were few means to transport them to markets and few customers with cash to pay for them, therefore harvest work declined. Some transients also found work at big public events such as the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, the 1933 World's Fair, and the 1939 San Francisco World's Fair.

In addition to the Depression, another factor contributing to the growing number of transients in the later 1930s was the drought that was particularly bad on the Southern Plains of the United States. The region from the Dakotas south to the panhandle of Texas literally dried up. The southern part of the region that was hit worst became known as the Dust Bowl. It was estimated that the drought itself forced four million on the road seeking a better life elsewhere. Most of the Dust Bowl refugees, however, would head west to California.

Riding the Rails

Transients riding the rails formed a society in itself. This society, however, was far different from any kind of society to which a new rider was accustomed. They had much to learn. Common places to ride were inside or on top of boxcars on freight trains or in blinds, which are locations between cars on passenger trains. Some would practice riding the rails at first, catching a freight train on a Saturday and riding to a nearby town and then coming back. This would build up experience and courage to leave for a long-term trip. Hundreds of transients could hop a single train, and it was reported that up to six hundred rode on some trains.

Finding places to briefly stay while not on a train was a daily concern. In towns the Salvation Army, missions, and city shelters provided meals and beds. At the Salvation Army transients were required to attend a brief prayer service before being served food, usually in a small dining room. To discourage youth from living on the road, relief centers would offer only two meals and one night of lodging to teenagers while adults could receive six meals and two nights of lodging.

On the outskirts of towns and in rural areas, camps, commonly called "jungles," could be found in brush or trees. Garbage piles of cans, glass, and other debris, and sometimes the scatter of flimsy shacks marked the camp locations. Often broken mirrors were left hanging from tree limbs for the use of the next transient while shaving or brushing their teeth. Hunting for wood, often twigs, to keep campfires burning during cold weather was a constant task through the night. When camps were unavailable or not desired some transients would sleep under bridges or other locations.

Dangers on the Rails

The hazards of riding the rails were many. Of course, hopping on trains without paying was illegal. Those hopping trains faced the possibility of arrest if caught by railroad security guards, commonly referred to as "bulls," or local police. Railroad companies reported considerable damage to trains and their cargo from stealing and the opening of vents to boxcars ruining cargoes of vegetables and fruits. Young or old, transients could be arrested for just hanging around train yards on charges of trespassing or vagrancy. Sometimes boys caught in the freight yards were beaten by the railroad bulls. Trespass and vagrancy was commonly punishable by time in jail and hard labor. A transient is a person traveling around, usually in search of work. A vagrant is a person wandering about with no permanent address and no visible means of financial support. A trespasser is a person who unlawfully enters the land of another person.

In some areas local farms relied on the arrested transients in local communities for field labor. Other communities would impose 30-day jail sentences or work on chain gangs. Riders found better success catching trains at the edge of train yards where tracks converge to the mainline than in the rail yards that were more closely patrolled. Of course bulls could be hiding on trains, or even disguised as a transient ready to catch the trespassers. Sometimes railroad company bulls and town police were at odds over what to do about transients. Railroad guards would be pulling transients off trains and town police wanted them to stay on the trains and move on through to the next town. The Southern Pacific railroad reported that its guards had removed over 683,000 transients from its trains and yards during 1932, up from over 170,000 in 1930 and only 78,000 in 1927 prior to the Great Depression.

Other common hazards of the rails included train wrecks and getting thrown from trains by sudden turns. In addition train tunnels would fill with black coal smoke leading to near suffocation for those caught unaware while riding on the outside of a train. Another danger came from other transients due to the fact that assaults were commonplace. Riders were advised to travel with partners as danger was always just around the corner. Thousands of transients were killed or injured each year as a result of train wrecks or assaults. The federal Interstate Commerce Commission reported that about 25,000 trespassers were killed and 27,000 injured on trains or in railroad yards during the Great Depression between 1929 and 1939. During a 10-month period in 1932 it was estimated that approximately six thousand transients were killed or injured.

Another difficulty was lack of food with hunger spells sometimes lasting up to several days. Various strategies were learned for surviving. For instance some reported better success at receiving food from homes by going down alleys and knocking at back-doors of houses rather than knocking at the front door. Often the transient would offer to work for some food or money. Many were futilely trying to earn money to send back home. Inexperienced youth, however, faced tough competition and were frequently paid less for doing the same work as an adult.

Aside from the physical hazards was the psychological toll. Fellow train riders or camp residents were often found in quiet, gloomy moods. There were few feelings of fellowship or close-knit ties among the transients. With tempers quick and arguments frequent, camps were particularly dangerous for younger transients.

Other hazards abounded such as problems of sanitation, which were everywhere. With restrooms not often available people had to relieve themselves wherever they could. As a result sanitation was a particular problem around well-used areas such as camps. The camp trash heaps would attract rats that were common sights around camps. Finding good drinking water was also a problem. Creeks and ponds were often available but contamination was always a possibility. In towns public toilets were soon overused by the growth of the homeless population during the Depression. As the Depression deepened they became broken or unkempt. Other options included sneaking into service station restrooms or using the facilities at railroad passenger stations. Socks and other clothes were washed in streams using bars of soap and hung in trees to dry. Many communities refused to provide medical care to transients not wanting to attract more transients to their town.

In 1933 Warner Brothers produced a movie Wild Boys of the Road that warned youth of the dangers of riding freight trains. The movie, however, actually served to entice many to the adventure of travel, the exact opposite of its aim.

Racial minorities and women were particularly vulnerable to dangers on the rails. Young women rode the rails in far fewer numbers than young men and often traveled disguised as males for safety reasons. Others traveled with one or two males, or with a group of boys. It was estimated in January 1933 that of the 256,000 transients riding the rails, 11,323 were women with 35 to 40 percent of the women under the age of 21. Before the Depression no more than a thousand would have been women under the age of 21.

A study in Buffalo, New York, in 1935 indicated that of the 20,000 transients identified, only 660 were black. Though racism was prominent throughout the nation, black Americans riding the rails were especially in great danger in the South where lynchings were on the rise during the early years of the Depression. Lynchings were illegal hangings of a person, usually a black man, by a mob without state or local authorization.

Transients and the New Deal

By 1933 the number of transients in America had skyrocketed. No longer were transients middle-aged men, they were increasingly the youth of America. This marked trend caused by the Great Depression alarmed much of the public including then-President-elect Franklin Roosevelt.

Upon taking office on March 4, Roosevelt took action. One of the first acts passed by Congress as part of Roosevelt's New Deal program was the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) in April 1933, which provided funds to states to help those in need, including transients and homeless. FERA also funded a college work-study program to help youth stay in school. For students still in school, FERA also offered a Student Aid Program, which provided part-time work for students. In 1934 and 1935, 100,000 students received funds. The normal amount was only $13 a month, but in the 1930s this was just enough to enable many young people to stay in school.

Roosevelt and the New Dealers consulted with a number of leading experts and organizations concerning social work for the poor. Included in Roosevelt's consultations were: Edith Abbott, dean of the University of Chicago's School of Social Administration; Nels Anderson, professor at Columbia University in New York City and head of the National Committee on Care for Transients and Homeless (NCCTH); and, Bertha McCall, executive director of the National Association for Travelers Aid.

In September 1933 the Federal Transient Relief Service was established under the authority of FERA. Elizabeth Wickenden was appointed Assistant Director of Transient Activities for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The Service set up treatment centers for transients of all ages in 250 cities and towns and established 350 work camps in rural areas. These centers and camps provided a place for a meal and a bed. The work camps provided work for those who were going to stay for a while. Various temporary jobs were provided such as road maintenance work, mosquito control, and improving city parks. These camps also provided recreation and study facilities. Camp residents received room and board and from 1 to 3 dollars a week for spending money. By 1935 the Transient Service was serving 200,000 homeless and one third of these were under 25 years of age. The Transient Service also sent men from its treatment centers to vocational classes often held in unused school buildings where a wide variety of subjects were offered. Some claimed the camps were too nice and contributed to transience by providing such good food and shelter. Many also thought the Service should be aggressive in sending transients back to wherever they had come originally from. The policy of the Transient Service, however, was to provide care to the transients wherever they happened to be, not to enforce resettlement in other locations against their will.

Like many New Deal programs, the Transient Service was the first federal program of its kind. As a result it had to construct facilities, train staff, and establish standards for transient care. Many felt its closure in September 1935, after only two years of operation, terminated the program just as it was becoming fully effective. Social workers had hailed the program as the most important advance in social work in years. Upon its sudden closure those served by the Service were scattered about. The employable were enrolled to work on projects for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). People just arriving to the federal camps were directed to state and local relief agencies. The small percentage of the unemployable, approximately seven percent, were sent back to committees. The Transient Service continued serving some already settled in camps for the next couple of years before closing the doors completely. Federal transient care between January 1933 and March 1937 cost the federal government over $106 million, averaging $5 million a month during its peak period in early 1935. Unfortunately closure of the Transient Service corresponded with the increased migration of refugees out of the Dust Bowl region of the Southern Plains that had been suffering from years of drought and massive dust storms. Other New Deal agencies such as the Resettlement Administration, primarily created to help poor farmers find a new start, would establish migrant camps in California and the Southwest to accommodate these new transients.

Some New Deal programs also attempted to keep people from riding the rails or entice those who already had begun riding the rails back into a more hopeful situation. A favorite of President Roosevelt's, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), was created in 1933 and recruited young men between the ages of 16 and 25 to work on conservation projects around the nation. The projects included soil erosion control, fighting forest fires, planting trees, building flood control facilities, and fighting insect infestations. Within only a few months 240,000 youth had been settled in 1,200 camps. The enrollees were paid $30 a month of which $25 had to be sent home to their families. Over two thousand camps were established by mid-1935 providing free room and board in addition to the pay. Many youth riding the rails who had home addresses and a family to send money to rushed to join.

Seeing many, including the transients, out of work in late 1933 with winter approaching, Roosevelt launched another work relief program. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) was established to provide work to help people through the tough winter months. It was only a temporary measure, however, and it ended in the spring of 1934.

Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 as a massive work relief program, creating jobs in construction of public facilities. With the ending of the Transient Service in September 1935, many of those able to work were enrolled in the WPA. As part of the WPA in June 1935 President Roosevelt established the National Youth Administration (NYA) with Aubrey Williams as its director. The NYA extended the Student Aid Program of FERA by providing financial aid to secondary, college, and graduate students between the ages of 16 and 25. Like the Federal Transient Relief Service under FERA, it was an effort to keep youth in school and off the rails. They provided $6 a month for needy high school students, $20 a month for college students, and $40 a month for college graduate students.

For those not still in school, the NYA also had its own work relief programs building community and recreation centers. The NYA served young women as well as young men and set up 50 camps that served five thousand young women. They stayed at the camps from three to four months and received training for technical and professional jobs. Other work projects of the NYA were predominantly in schools and hospitals.

Through its programs, in 1936 the NYA gave cash aid to over 581,000 youth. Some 45 percent of recipients were female. Also included were 19,000 black American youth through the Negro Branch. Though one of the most responsive New Deal agencies toward minorities, it still was far short of the demand as 400,000 black Americans between the ages of 14 and 16 were estimated to be on relief rolls at the time.

In support of the New Deal programs that assisted transient youth, private organizations also sought new solutions to the problem. The American Council on Education created the American Youth Commission in the mid-1930s to seek ideas in solving problems in education. The goal was to entice youth back into the classroom. At the time one out of seven youths were on relief rolls, or about six million young people. Advocates for helping the youth lobbied Congress for another bill, the American Youth Act in 1936. The act would guarantee a free public education for the needy as well as assistance for living expenses. A pro-youth march on Washington, DC, was held in February 1937. It was during this time that a federation of youth and student organizations around the nation, known as the American Youth Congress, issued a declaration of rights for youth focused on education needs, the right to a safe and warm home, and opportunity to work.

Despite the CCC, the NYA, and other New Deal programs, tens of thousands of youth still rode the rails. They were either ineligible for whatever reason, exhausted their relief availability, or simply were out of reach from New Deal programs.

Private Organizations Influencing the New Deal

Since the end of the nineteenth century increasing numbers of private organizations were formed to assist transients and the homeless as the problem persisted in the newly industrialized nation. A key organization that was active through the Great Depression was the Travelers Aid. First organized in New York City in 1905 the organization provided relief services to transients. The organization provided food, clothing, and transportation. It would also refer transients to the Salvation Army or other places for temporary shelter when needed. Travelers Aid also published pamphlets on the transient problem in the United States and advised the federal government on the issue, at times testifying before Congress.

The National Committee on Care of Transient and Homeless (NCCTH) was formed in 1932 to address the rising transient issue of the Great Depression. The NCCTH was composed of a group of concerned individuals—professional social workers, academic staff, and knowledgeable citizens. It became the primary national group to campaign for solutions to transient problems. The NCCTH collected new data, held public hearings, conducted surveys and research, and lobbied Congress. While the Federal Transient Service was at the height of its operation between 1933 and 1935, the NCCTH served as a watchdog over the agency. It regularly assessed the performance of the agency's camps and evaluated the standards kept. In 1938 the NCCTH changed its name to the Council on Interstate Migration recognizing that homeless issues had broadened away from solely focusing on transient homeless. A year later Travelers Aid absorbed it.

In reaction to the federal government's elimination of the Transient Service, several large regional conferences were held on the subject in the late 1930s. For example the Trenton Conference on Transient and Settlement Laws was held March 1936 and twenty-two eastern states sent representatives. Similar conferences were held in the Midwest and New York. A common purpose of all of them was to call for greater federal action on behalf of transients. No further specific action, however, was adopted by the New Deal.

Contributing Forces

Industrialization and Homelessness

During colonial times the homeless and transients were known as the wandering poor. They included itinerant workers, poor widows with their children, and the disabled. The occurrence of transients led to vagrancy laws based on earlier English law. These laws often dictated removal of the strangers from the community. During the early years of the United States the federal government had no responsibility for addressing transient issues. They were left strictly to the state and local governments resulting in much variation in how transients were dealt with.

As industrialization of America gained momentum through the nineteenth century in the United States, the American populace shifted from predominately rural agricultural communities to an urban society concentrated around industrial centers. No longer did the average American worker have the economic safety net of family and a small rural community when times got hard. The worker was in a much less personal high-density living environment.

More About… Language of the Rails

Those who rode the rails developed their own subculture, important for survival. A key part of this mobile society was communication through language. In addition to a spoken language, a written language of signs also aided communication. Many transients would carry a piece of chalk in their pocket. Through a use of common symbols they would mark locations where food could be found, safe campsites, dangerous dogs, dangerous towns, and clean drinking water.

  • Bindle: cloth folded over filled with traveling necessities such as a razor, bar of soap, small towel, socks, drinking cup, and jack knife.
  • Blinds: spaces between cars of a passenger train where a person could stand without being easily seen; it is a short walkway surrounded by an accordion-like structure around it.
  • Brakie: the train brakeman.
  • Bum: someone who did not travel or work.
  • Catch out: hop on your first freight train.
  • Dingbat: an experienced hobo.
  • Dumped: physically attacked or assaulted.
  • Gaycat: someone new to hoboing.
  • Grab iron: the vertical railing on a train car to catch hold of.
  • Hobo: someone who traveled and worked when jobs could be found.
  • Hobo tobacco: dried leaves crushed and rolled into a cigarette.
  • Hoosiers: people who are not transients; the general public.
  • Hoover tourists: homeless catching rides on trains.
  • Jungle: transient camps in woods near the train tracks where hoboes could stop overnight or for the short term to wash, cook, rest, and sleep.
  • Jungle buzzards: hoboes who lived at camps for weeks or months at a time.
  • Knee shaker: receiving a plate of food while sitting on a back porch.
  • Lump: a handout consisting of a sack of food.
  • Mulligan stew: a soup composed of whatever food scraps may be obtained, boiled over a campfire.
  • On the fly: catching a train while it is rolling.
  • Railroad bull: security guards employed by a railroad company, hired to get transients off railroad property.
  • Sally: Salvation Army facility where temporary food and shelter could be found.
  • Sit down: being invited to come inside a house and eat with a family.
  • Solid reefers: loaded refrigerator cars filled with ice; they were a source of drinking water from the dripping below the car.
  • Tramp: someone who traveled but did not work.
  • Yeggs: tramps with a criminal nature.

With the pace of industrialization rapidly increasing after the Civil War, the economic recession of 1873 and 1874 hit workers hard. Workers found themselves out of a job as factories cut back production. Three million people became unemployed and no unemployment insurance systems existed. The number of transients increased significantly for the first time in U.S. history. Unaccustomed to such widespread homelessness the public became alarmed. In response Rhode Island passed a Tramps Act in 1880 that became a model for other states. In an effort to control transience in their state the law allowed the arrest and conviction of transients and sentenced to time in workhouses. This would be the first of various anti-transient acts around the country. When the economy improved in the 1880s the issue of transience decreased in urgency.

A greater number of immigrants entered the country in the late nineteenth century and, looking for work in U.S. industrial centers, increased competition over jobs. With the arrival of another economic recession in 1893 transients became a permanent segment of the U.S. capitalist economic system. Though not many transients were actually immigrants the increased competition for jobs took its toll. The newly formed permanent transient population actually became a functioning part of the U.S. economy providing seasonal unskilled labor to Midwest farms, mining and logging camps, working on railroad construction crews, and contributing to other projects. They generally rode the rails from job to job. The size of this segment of society would regularly increase and shrink based on the general health of the U.S. economy. There was a steady turnover in its membership through time as well. Besides including those without a job, it also consisted of those who could not adapt to the new industrial society and had a compulsion to wander, resisting integration into an established community. These people sought detachment from society.

In response to this rise of a transient segment of society hundreds of public and private relief agencies were established. For transient youths railroad companies even offered charity rates for their return home. Arrival of the Depression soon overwhelmed these organizations and help was no longer readily available.

During the 1920s those riding the rails were permanent transients and seasonal workers. The Great Depression brought a third category, the unemployed. By the early 1930s, 70 percent of those riding the rails were from this category.

Children in the Depression

Though the Great Depression affected millions of people in a multitude of ways, many claimed it was perhaps the children who suffered the affects the longest, sometimes lasting the rest of their lives. Years of poverty, hunger, and lack of hope for the future left a lasting mark. Often the lights and water service were cut off to a family out of work and unable to pay the bills. The house and car payments fell behind eventually leading to repossession by the bank that held the loan or mortgage. Meals consisting of mainly potatoes were supplemented by leftover meat bones obtained from a butcher.

Life at school might not be much better. With people losing their jobs or receiving pay cuts, tax revenues for public school systems were declining. Plans for new buildings were put on hold and cutbacks were made in textbooks, teacher salaries, and supplies. Classrooms became more crowded as teachers were reduced in number and school years were shortened. By late 1930 in the first full year of the Depression over three million children between ages seven and 17 were out of school. One-third of these had found work in factories or on farms as families sought additional sources of income. Child labor laws were weakly enforced given the dire need of struggling families. By the following year 2,600 schools across the nation had been closed and this number grew further to four thousand by 1933. By then nearly four million students had been affected either by shortened school years or closed schools.

In some circumstances youths found themselves a burden on a family that did not have enough resources to feed every mouth. They felt they had to leave, and then hoped that on the road they could find work. Others left abusive family situations, while some simply were looking for adventure. Often a combination of factors provided the stimulus to leave home, and one of the only options was to take to the rails.


Local Perspectives

The public had varying perspectives of the youth on rails. By 1932 the national press found the story of hundreds of thousands of youthful transients captivating to their readers. To some they represented the adventurous American spirit, the same spirit that pushed earlier Americans further and further onto the frontier as America expanded westward in the nineteenth century. To these individuals the youth displayed an amazing amount of resourcefulness in adapting to life on the rails. In fact they believed the more ambitious youth took to the rails, unwilling to accept the lack of work and opportunity in their home-town.

Others feared the youth would become hardened by experiences on the rails, living off of others, begging for money and handouts, and playing on the sympathies of others. The new transients of the Great Depression were taught petty crimes and stealing by veteran transients, and some eventually turned into criminals.

Public attitudes toward transients and the homeless became more negative at first as the Great Depression progressed. Rights to public relief or social services were tied to local residence laws, which varied greatly among the states. A common response to the increased occurrence of transients was to make state residency requirements tougher to qualify for. In some states a person could lose rights to relief if they were away from an area for only six months. Other states asserted a person could not qualify for relief until they had resided in the state for at least five years. As a result many transients riding the rails had no relief rights in any state. Their only access to help was the minimal assistance provided by charities.

Before the New Deal programs were established, and given the extent of the problem of the Depression, the public called for a nationwide federal program to solve the transient problem. With President Herbert Hoover firmly believing in self-help, the federal government provided little relief prior to 1933.

Riding the rails was a hardening experience. For many there was the thrill of adventure and freedom at first, however, after several months the thrill was gone with breadlines, begging, trashy camps, and torn and dirty clothes. After a while of riding the rails people would become stoic and fatigued, which some compared to the battle fatigue of war. They had largely given up on life. Months or years of little food and sleep and watching out for tough characters changed a person. After being a transient for so long, some people would lose direction in life and just aimlessly drift in a perpetual state of loneliness. As many later noted in memoirs, after a while you looked and smelled like a bum and people treated you like a bum. Life on the rails also provided a dramatic education of conditions of Americans during the Great Depression. Seeing entire families living on the road seemed particularly difficult to witness for the younger transients.

To combat the public stigma of transients and the homeless, national advocacy groups had studies conducted in the early 1930s to show that the make-up of the transient population had become similar in character to the general population. There were now women, youth, and most strikingly whole families. The local and national press, however, often fed the public negative images of transients by highlighting any violent confrontations with law authorities. Harry Hopkins, head of the WPA, and others tried to underscore that these were not professional bums, but workers and farmers, displaced by economic hard times and looking for a new start. Photographs by federally sponsored photographers such as Dorothea Lange put a human face on transients for much of the public when the photographs began to appear in national magazines and exhibits. To provide further positive images of transients, Warner Brothers movie production company released a film titled Stranded that showed transients and the Federal Transient Service in a favorable light.

The more positive and sympathetic messages began to have an effect, and public attitudes toward transients became less hostile through the later 1930s. Many of the transients performed work beneficial to the communities through New Deal programs and assisted in times of need such as seasonal floods. When in September 1935 Aubrey Williams announced termination of the Transient Service, much of the public objected to the closing of the camps.

Some observed that each part of the country had a different perspective on transients. This variation probably reflected unique economic histories and specific needs of each region during the Depression. One person described the Midwest as empathetic, they were shunned in the Atlantic states, the Southeast was perhaps least helpful, the Mountain states frequently offered work, and Los Angeles had actually declared war by forming police blockades to keep transients out.

National Perspectives

Though some notions of political radicalism, including talk of revolution, lingered around campfires and boxcars there was never much momentum. Most transients were more concerned with day-to-day survival while riding the rails. Even given the younger population riding the rails few would be considered political radicals. The transient population was unorganized and largely politically conservative. Those who still held hope for the future were primarily looking for job opportunities and success in the existing economic system of the United States.

Many found fresh hope with the newly created Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the summer of 1933. They quickly abandoned the rails and enrolled in CCC camps. The CCC was one national answer to providing hope to the youth of the nation, particularly the male youth. Under Roosevelt's leadership the CCC was a unique organization. The Department of Labor recruited the enrollees; the Department of War built the camps, supplied them, and provided transportation to work sites; and the Departments of Interior and Agriculture selected the projects. The projects were both private farmlands and on public lands including national forests and National Parks. Despite the learning of new skills, still 75 percent of the enrollees could not find employment after their first six-month tour with CCC ended. Sixty percent could not find work after their second tour.

The federal government began looking at the "youth problem" attempting to identify the factors driving so many away from home and school. Many feared a "lost generation" would result from the period. Representing the transient youth before Congress and other places was an organization called "Untouched Youth of America." What became clear was that before the Depression it was adventure and rebellion that led youth to the rails. The Depression introduced another key dimension, a search for hope in the future through elusive job opportunities in the next town.

Closure of the Federal Transient Service in September 1935 ended special attention by the federal government to the transient. Many had criticized the program for providing such good food and shelter, holding the belief that the agency was actually enticing transience. Another criticism was that the transient program was actually doing a disservice to the transients who were looking for work. The Service camps were isolated from the general public, reinforcing a transient detachment from job opportunities and mainstream society. There was a growing desire among social workers to include transients in the general New Deal relief programs.

International Perspectives

The dramatic rise in youth in America riding the rails was not in itself unique in the world. Perhaps most notably, a rise of transient youths had begun in Germany by 1900. Youths had begun rebelling against the materialism of Germany's new industrialization period. A key aspect of the rebellion was to take to the road and chase a more romantic notion of freedom. Hiking clubs appeared throughout the nation and many lived in transient camps. By 1919 many buildings were being converted to shelters for the transient youth, and by 1929, 2,200 youth shelters existed across Germany.

With the arrival of the Great Depression in Germany unemployment rates hit 20 percent of the work-force. Few job opportunities existed for youth. Given the severe economic strife of the country the youth movement became more political in nature. Hiking and camping activities took on more of a militaristic focus as many youth joined either the communist party or the Nazi party. This trend concerned those in the United States, including President Roosevelt, who feared that idle youth in the United States including the transients might take a similar path if the opportunity arose.

Similar trends among youth were happening elsewhere in Europe. In the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the communist takeover of the government, led to social turmoil and famine. Some 750,000 children became homeless. Many turned to a pack mentality, stealing food and surviving together.


The combination of military service and employment in the war-related industries lowered the unemployment rate to less than two percent of the work-force by 1944. Homelessness and transience returned to some degree as war-related employment decreased, but in much smaller numbers than during the Great Depression. Most associated the homeless with "skidrows" in larger cities, and once again transience was associated with middle-aged men over 40.

The social upheaval of the late 1960s introduced a new era of youth on the road. Many were seeking adventure and detachment from society's norms. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 established a Runaway Youth Program to provide temporary shelters and other services to youth between the ages of 12 and 18. Attitudes toward teenage runaways changed by 1976 as the arrest rate of juveniles exceeded adults for crimes by transients.

Another surge of homelessness arrived in the early 1980s. The character of homelessness during this period changed once again. It was spurred by high unemployment rates combined with cuts in government social services under President Ronald Reagan's (served 1981–1989) administration, particularly the sharp decline in low-income housing. Like President Hoover in the early years of the Great Depression, Reagan and other conservatives claimed the assistance programs destroyed personal initiative and encouraged idleness. Reagan sharply reduced federal domestic spending while cutting taxes for the wealthy.

The number of homeless increased from two million in 1982 to 2.5 million in 1983. One-fourth of these were estimated to be women, many single mothers with children. In 1988 it was estimated over 577,000 youth were runaways or homeless. In the 1990s whole families continued to be part of the homeless and transient population, and the rate of homeless minorities also increased. Combinations of nonprofit organizations, social service departments of local governments, and charitable efforts by businesses and churches attempted to provide shelter and food. Alcoholism and drug use also became more strongly associated with transient life.

Through the 1980s and 1990s homelessness became one of the more controversial and complex issues of federal domestic policy. A backlash against homelessness led to passage of welfare reform legislation in 1996 signed by President Bill Clinton (served 1993–2001). The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ended cash assistance to poor families previous provided through the 1970 Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and replaced it with another federal program offering substantially reduced benefits. Social workers struggled once again, as in the 1930s, with the growing numbers of extremely poor in America.

It was estimated that a higher proportion of American youth lived in poverty in 1990 than in 1960 and the family median income had decreased by six percent between 1989 and 1993. Despite the economic boom years of the 1990s, the wealth gap between the rich and poor increased once again, reminiscent of the 1920s. Significant numbers of families were on the road and living in shelters. Federal programs addressed problems of low-income housing. The problem of transient youths that rose during the Great Depression of the 1930s had risen again in the late 1960s and grew to crisis proportions through the 1990s. The National Network of Runaway an Youth Services in the late 1990s estimated that over one million youth were runaways with half being homeless.

Notable People

Edith Abbott (1876–1957). Abbott was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, to an active, politically progressive family. Her father was the fist lieutenant governor of Nebraska and her mother a women's suffrage (women's voting rights) advocate. Abbott earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska 1901 and a doctorate degree in political economics from the University of Chicago, graduating with honors in 1905. She worked as a researcher for the Carnegie Institution in Washington, DC, and New York City before traveling to England to study at the London School Economics. While in England she met key social reformers who influenced her future direction in life. She returned to the United States in 1907 and moved into the Hull House in Chicago, a settlement house providing social services to the surrounding community. She also served as director of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy focusing on problems of youth. With Abbott as dean, in 1920 it became the School of Social Service Administration affiliated with the University of Chicago. She also published over one hundred articles and books, the most noted being the book, Women in Industry in 1910. The study focused on the affect of industrialization on working women in terms of low wages and poor working conditions.

During the Great Depression Abbott and her influential School of Social Service Administration trained social workers in applying social reform to aid the poor. Abbott advised both President Herbert Hoover and President Franklin Roosevelt and strongly supported New Deal programs. She advised and trained workers for the Federal Transient Service from 1933 to 1935 and was elected president of the National Conference of Social Work in 1936. Abbott continued to advocate national programs for the poor into the 1950s.

Elizabeth Wickenden (1909–2001). Wickenden was greatly involved in issues involving transients throughout the New Deal. She was first appointed Assistant Director of Transient Activities for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in 1933. There she helped establish the Federal Transient Service. Later when the Transient Service was terminated in 1935 she became Assistant Deputy Administrator of the Works Progress Administration. Wickenden had observed the various debates surrounding the Transient Service and became an advocate for trying different approaches in addressing the transient problem. In 1937 she authored an article titled " Transiency—Mobility in Trouble" which was published in the journal The Survey. Wickenden argued that transients should be included in more general New Deal relief programs rather than singled out for special treatment. She claimed the Service had reinforced public opinion that transients were different and needed rehabilitation rather than just a job and home like everyone else. As she contended, transience was not the problem, it was the lack of work that was the key issue.

Aubrey Williams (1890–1965). Williams was born in Springville, Alabama, to a family of modest means. He was greatly disturbed by the racial discrimination that surrounded him during his youth. During World War I (1914–1918) he joined the French Foreign Legion. Afterwards he became executive secretary of the Wisconsin Conference of Social Work, an organization concerned with finding solutions to poverty and delinquency. With onset of the Great Depression Williams worked with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in trying to bring relief to people of Texas and Mississippi. He was recruited as an assistant to Harry Hopkins at the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Williams brought a dedication to the New Deal in seeking equal treatment for black Americans in New Deal work relief programs. In 1935 Williams became deputy director of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and executive director of the National Youth Administration (NYA) that strove to help transient youth riding the rails. Williams remained lead of the NYA until it was disbanded in 1943.

Primary Sources

Youth on the Rails

Kingsley Davis explored the world of American youth riding the rails during the Great Depression. His observations were published in 1935 by The University of Chicago Press in a educational pamphlet titled Youth in the Depression (pp. 1–7).

"Wheezing and groaning to a slow halt, the long freight train of the Southern Pacific line pulled into the yards of El Paso, Texas. It was a bright April day back in 1932, and the long string of box cars gleamed warmly red in the afternoon sun.

Even before the train stopped, a small army of men and boys began hopping off. In rough clothes, many of them carrying small bundles, these "knights of the road" appeared as if by magic from every part of the train. All told, there were forty-four …

The travelers looked around to get their bearings. Then most of them scattered into the city to begin their long, weary search for a meals.…

Most of those on the road nowadays are young men. There used to be just two kinds, regular hoboes and seasonal workers; and most of them were older. Now there is a third kind, the unemployed. They make up 70 per cent of the men on the road today, and the majority of them are young fellows …

Most of them want to work, but they can't find it. No town, except the cities, will let them stop for long. The life is hard on them. Bad food, dirt, no sleep. Lots of them get hurt. Hundreds are killed or injured every year."

But the worst thing is that the boys may turn into bums. This year, already, they are tougher than they were last year. If hard times last much longer and nothing is done for these boys, things will be pretty bad for them. They won't get an education. They'll form the habit of getting by without working… and they'll learn stealing and vice from the old bums that are always on the road …

John Fawcett's Ride to Texas

In June 1936 John Fawcett, sixteen years of age, decided to have an adventure. He hopped a train and traveled from Wheeling, West Virginia, to Dallas, Texas, to attend the Texas Centennial Exposition. He wrote of his experience in a memoir that was later published in the December 1994 issue of Indiana Magazine of History. The journey highlighted the dangers and excitement of riding the rails. It took three weeks of hard travel getting to Texas and only five days of travel upon return.

I was born and raised in Wheeling, W. Va. where I lived until my graduation from high school in June 1937…

I had always been about an average student or maybe a little better, but in February 1936 I was full of anxiety and discontent.… So on the evening of February 7th, 1936, with the temperature down below zero, and the ground covered with snow, I ran away form home!.…

We were at the west end of the railroad yard in Cincinnati munching on stale rolls when we heard the unmistakable sound of a big locomotive getting a long freight train under way. Within minutes my friend, Mick, and I were on a gondola car full of sand and reclining in the sunshine. It was a train of over a hundred cars carrying other freeloading "passengers". We… came to a rattling stop in the town of North Vernon where we got off. A rather meager hobo jungle was located on the north side of the tracks just a few blocks from the residential part of town. We'd been sitting there in the shade for a while when we got talking to a man named Shorty Frazier.

He was a professional hobo, having been on the road for years.… Soon the three of us agreed to "make our presence known" in the community by knocking on doors. We learned that day, the universal transient's rule that, when possible, always enter from the alley and knock on the back door rather than the front. This way there was a much better chance of success.…

Another fascinating bit of hobo-ology that our friend, Shorty, showed us that day was the habit of some old Knights of the Road of carrying a piece of chalk in their pockets. When one of those worthies received a handout, or especially a "sit down" (a plate of food brought out while sitting on the porch or back stairs), he would, when returning to the alley, write carefully with his chalk on the fence or garage door, the number eighteen. This was a secret code to others of the brotherhood that here is a house where "I ate" …

An hour after rolling out in the morning, we were sitting on a grassy knoll beside the tracks having just herd the wail of steam whistles coming from down in the yards. There she came and what a sight to see! It was a long double headed freight train pulled by two huge steam locomotives spouting smoke and steam as they came roaring through the switches onto the main line. Nothing compares to that sight and sound and it raises my pulse and blood pressure to this day. No … wonder kids run away from home! …

Leaving Home

Leaving home to ride the rails wasn't always an adventure. Sometimes it was a choice made when there were few options available. Errol Lincoln Uys relays such a departure scene in his book Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression (2000, p. 53).

It was the Depression and I could find no work. I was a burden on Mother and Gus, my stepfather. I knew then what I must do.… Mother didn't fight it, but she was sad. She owned no suitcase or tote; she gave me a black satin bag, the size of a pillowcase, to carry my things. I jammed my 'sleeping bag' inside, three or four pairs of socks, shorts, an old sweater. Mother handed me all the money in her purse: seventy-two cents. I gave her a big kiss and a long, tight hug. The tears were streaming down her face. I left with the black satin bag over my shoulder. Had I been brave enough to turn around, I would have been coward enough to go back.

Suggested Research Topics

  • Write diary entries from the perspective of a teenager in the 1930s who has left home and is riding the rails. Why did you leave home? What are your hopes, dreams, and fears? Describe your experiences crossing the country.
  • What are some of the reasons for homelessness today? Why were people homeless in the 1930s? Do teenagers, both past and present, have different reasons than adults for being homeless?
  • Explore the life of late twentieth century hoboes by studying Ted Conover's book Rolling Nowhere: A Young Man's Adventure Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes (New York: Penguin, 1987) or Journey to Nowhere by Dale Maharidge (Dial Press, 1985).



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

Crouse, Joan M. The Homeless Transient in the Great Depression: New York State, 1929–1941. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.

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

Fawcett, John E. "A Hobo Memoir, 1936." Indiana Magazine of History, December 1994.

Tyack, David, Robert Lowe, and Elisabeth Hansot. Public Schools in Hard Times: The Great Depression and Recent Years. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

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

Further Reading

Cohen, Norm. Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

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

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

Guthrie, Woody. Bound For Glory. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1943.

Kerouac, Jack. Lonesome Traveler. New York: Grove Press, 1988.

Maharidge, Dale. Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass. Garden City, NY: The Dial Press, 1985.

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

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

"Riding the Rails," available from the World Wide Web at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/rails.html.

See Also

Civilian Conservation Corps ; New Deal (First, and Its Critics) ; New Deal (Second) ; Works Progress Administration