Knights of the Fast Freight


When young Jack London described the Reno of 1892 as “filled with … a vast and hungry horde of hoboes,” he was reporting no isolated phenomenon; shaggy, rootless men—tramps or hoboes—could be seen in every part of the West from the 1870’s down to the Second World War. Beginning in 1869, when Omaha Bill beat his way on the first Union Pacific train to the Coast, they were to be seen on all the western lines. Robert Louis Stevenson watched two of these “land stowaways,” as he called them, “whip suddenly from underneath the cars, and take to their heels” while his train was standing in the yards at Elko, Nevada, in 1879. Freight trains heading for the Dakota wheat harvests thirty years later were black with transient riders, like roosting starlings.

These knights of the tie and rail ranged the nation, but the West was both their favorite locale and the beneficiary of their peculiar contributions. “Tramps are made in the West,” noted a New Jersey social worker in 1903. The West was the land of milk and honey, of adventure, scenery, and easy living. In California—the “tramp’s paradise—one might sleep free under the stars every night and pluck his breakfast from an orange tree. Like his brethren elsewhere and like the cowboy and the Indian, the western vagabond emerged as a stereotype in the public mind. By the 1880’s he was replacing the redskin as a public menace—an evil, shiftless, thieving beggar better handled by an alert bulldog or a double-barreled shotgun than with sympathy. In time this image would fade and Americans would come to view him as a carefree, roving dreamer, either in Charles Chaplin’s impudent version or in Emmett Kelly’s more pathetic one.

Yet this stereotype distorts and conceals the importance of a substantial group of men who helped build the West. But to see them in perspective it should be pointed out, as the Hobo News did nearly fifty years ago, that the words “hobo,” “tramp,” and “bum” have decidedly different meanings: “A hobo is a migratory worker, a tramp is a migratory non-worker, and a bum is a stationary non-worker.” Here we are not concerned with the bum—the down-and-outer of the city skid row—but with tramps and hoboes, two distinctive classes of men on the move, who, in the words of one of them, aligned their interests “with the interests of the railroad companies.”

In general, life on the road was a masculine prerogative. Before the Great Depression the rare woman tramp or hobo was inclined to be radical and hard-bitten, like the one who visited Bertha Thompson’s mother in Bismarck, North Dakota, early in the century, the two of them laughing because “the men wouldn’t be able to get at her on the rods.” “Box-Car Bertha” Thompson herself—prostitute, member of a shoplifting gang, and social service researcher—had spent fifteen years on the road before she was thirty. She may have ignored her first advice on riding freights—“keep your trap closed and your legs crossed”—but she lived a life of adventure. Once, pregnant, the father of her child unknown, she rushed from Seattle to Chicago by freight to her lover in the death house; later another lover died in her arms after falling under the wheels of a Southern Pacific train in the outskirts of Los Angeles.


But most of the knights were men and, tramp or hobo, were attracted or pushed into the life by a variety of forces, some broad, some individual. The nationwide tramp epidemic of the 1870’s was attributed in part to the aftermath of the Civil War. Men used to army life would find the way of the vagabond no real hardship. As one serious discussant wrote in 1877: … among other things which war teaches a nation, are the arts of marching,—of finding shelter and forage,—the habit of living on the country,—and the disposition to trust to-morrow to take care of to-morrow. That the ranks of tramps and hoboes expanded and contracted with the rise and fall of the national economy is self-evident. The depressions of 1873, 1893, and 1929 cast thousands, even millions, adrift, many of them restlessly riding the boxcars from noplace in particular to nowhere at all.

Sociologists suggest other factors: racial or ethnic discrimination, defects of personality, or crises in personal life. Indeed, the literature of the road reveals many instances of teenagers who turned to tramping because of family conflict, the death of someone close, or trouble in school, with the law, or over a girl. Youth has always had its problems of growing up, and more than one kind of “speed” or “trip” has provided an outlet for the alienated and the restless.


Scientifically oriented investigators put heavy emphasis on alcoholism—“a biochemical defect of one kind or another—e.g., an idiosyncratic geneotrophic lack of nutritive elements, or a defective function of the endocrine gland or a masked food sensitivity.” The wooden grave marker of a hobo at Caliente, Nevada, put it more simply and added another basic cause: