Many people forced off the farm heard about work hundreds of miles away … or even half a continent away. Often the only way they could get there was by hopping on freight trains, illegally. More than two million men and perhaps 8,000 women became hoboes. At least 6,500 hoboes were killed in one year either in accidents or by railroad “bulls,” brutal guards hired by the railroads to make sure the trains carried only paying customers. Finding food was a constant problem. Hoboes often begged for food at a local farmhouse. If the farmer was generous, the hobo would mark the lane so that later hoboes would know this was a good place to beg. Millie Opitz remembers hoboes coming to her neighborhood.
The list of people who rode the rails includes many later became famous –
- Novelist Louis L’Amour
- TV host Art Linkletter
- Oil billionaire H. L. Hunt
- Journalist Eric Sevareid
- Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas
All, at one time, had been hoboes, looking for work.
Riding the rails was dangerous. The bulls were hired to keep hoboes off trains, so you couldn’t just go to a railroad yard and climb on. Most hoboes would hide along the tracks outside the yard. They’d run along the train as it gained speed, grab hold and jump into open boxcars. Sometimes, they missed. Many lost their legs or their lives. As the train was reaching its destination, the hoboes had to jump off before a new set of bulls to arrest them or beat them up.
But no amount of clubbing or shooting could keep all of the hoboes off the trains. In many cases, the hoboes had no other choice but to hop a freight and look for work.
Walter Ballard was one young man who became a hobo. He remembers the Depression getting so bad that his family didn’t have enough to eat. At least in the hobo jungles, they would share food with each other. Walter remembers the bulls. “I been hijacked by them railroad bulls in the yards, and they get rough. See, there was so many of us on the rails, they couldn’t let you congregate in one town.” But at least one time, in Chadron, Nebraska, there were so many hoboes on a train that the brakeman gave up.
“There was so many people on it, it looked like blackbirds,” Walter said. “Believe it or not, when we got ready to go that old brakeman hollered, ‘All aboard!’ just like it was a passenger train. Then we felt at ease.”
Surprisingly, after all the danger and the rough conditions, Walter enjoyed the experience. “I loved it,” he said. “It’ll get in your blood. You’re not agoing anywhere, you don’t care, you just ride. It’s paid for. You’re going to eat, that was more than you was doing at home, probably.”
Hopping freights became so common that in 1933 Warner Brothers studio – at the time run by Nebraska Darryl F. Zanuck – produced a film called “Wild Boys of the Road” to try to scare young people away from riding the rails. In the film, a boy falls on the track and loses his leg to an oncoming train. The celebrated director William Wellman completed the film for Zanuck.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.