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Knights of the Fast Freight
For hoboes, the West was the land of milk and honey, of adventure, scenery, and easy living. A “land stowaway” hopped the first transcontinental train, and for six more decades they rode the rails
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
Many a man turned to the road because of overfraternization with John Barleycorn; many a lover jilted or husband betrayed, done in by a smoothtongued city drummer, left the farm or vine-covered cottage.
Another vital factor was the virus of restlessness and wanderlust, often an incurable malady. Born with an instinct for the life, the true tramp or hobo was one of Robert W. Service’s “Men That Don’t Fit In.” To such a man the road meant adventure, a primitive freedom, challenge without responsibility. As one confided to Josiah Flynt, hobo, detective, and journalist: I was brought up on a farm, but, my goodness, I wouldn’t trade this life if you’d give me all the land in the wild West. Why, I can do just as I please now—exactly. When I want to go anywhere, I get on a train and go, and no one has the right to ask me any questions. That’s what I call liberty.… “When I was pulled through the door of the box-car,” wrote another, I was pulled into another world. … I was no longer a plodding farm hand, I had stepped outside the law, into the realm where men lived by their wits.
Youthful wanderlust was sometimes kindled by reading reminiscent accounts like Josiah Flynt’s Tramping With Tramps , although the thirteenyear-old who turned up in an early Nebraska hobo jungle, clad in a buckskin scout outfit, armed with an “enormous revolver” (missing one vital part), and looking for a chance to shoot Indians, was more likely influenced by Ned Buntline. Older tramps often enticed teen-agers to the road with exciting and intoxicating personal narratives. The “Big Rock Candy Mountains,” which has been called a hobo love song, is basically the seduction of a lad to tramp life as a “preshun,” or apprentice to a “jocker,” a kind of knight-squire relationship, often with homosexual overtones.
For many it was the railroad itself that exerted the magnetic pull—”a lure, unexplainable, yet strong, like the light which leads a moth to destruction,” as hobo writer Jim Tully put it. The true tramp “loved the train as a horseman loves his horse.” To him, wrote Glen Mullin, the “scholartramp,” … a train is a thing compounded of magic and beauty, just as a bravely trimmed vessel is to a mariner. It arouses within him a latent mysticism. The rattle and swank of a long freight pulling out of the yards, the locomotive, black and eager, shoving her snorting muzzle along the rails, this is a spectacle and a challenge which only the wanderer who loves train riding can understand. … She is an enchanted caravan moving into the mysterious beyond, hailing with bells and song the blue distance that fades forever as she moves.
Tramps and hoboes considered it their privilege to ride free on the railroads. They were “as proud of it as the American is of his country,” said Josiah Flynt in 1893. Beating one’s way by rail required skill and experience, and tramps were the true artists. One boasted of traveling three hundred thousand miles on thirty cents and his nerve. Another, a veteran of ten years on the road at age twenty-five, had beat his way on every line in the United States, including the Pikes Peak Railway. Hoboes were likely to prefer boxcars, but ingenious tramps rode anywhere: atop cargo in open gondolas, among livestock in cattle cars, on bumpers between cars, or in the empty iceboxes of the fruit specials. They hid in water tanks, in the coal in the tender, and in tool or supply boxes. In the words of Kenneth Allsop, they learned to ride a train “the way an Indian brave could ride a horse: they could hang onto belly, back, neck or rump, and get there.”
To hop an ordinary freight, or rattler, was perhaps no great challenge, but to hold down a cannonball—a fast train of any kind—called for talent and courage. Riding the blind—the open vestibule next to the tender—was in one tramp’s mind like “riding the nose of a great steel projectile hurtling like a comet through flying stardust and frightened planets,” but it was also uncertain and unpleasant. The possibility of being ditched by the crew was strong at each stop, and in front was the fireman, ready to turn on the hose, throw coal or hot ash, or, worse yet, hale a tramp into the tender to shovel coal. The deck or top of a passenger train was even less desirable. The tramp who decked the Jarrett and Palmer theatrical train out of Cheyenne in 1877, when it set a speed record between New York and San Francisco, had to cling for dear life to a stovepipe while sparks and cinders “cut through his clothes like bullets,” lacerated his neck and face, and caused his hair to turn completely gray by the time he climbed down at Green River, according to contemporaries.