Knights of the Fast Freight


It took a daring tramp like Frisco, “a great old train-barnacle,” to ride, as he once did, the cowcatcher of a Missouri Pacific passenger engine, and he nearly had a heart attack when he thought it was about to hit a white cow. The wind was devastating. “Open yer mouth and she’d blow you wrong side out,” he said. The engine headlight “sprayed out across the prairie and attracted all the bugs in Kansas. My mouth and eyes and shirt got full of ‘em, and them big shiny black bugs hurt too when they hit you between the eyes.” Frisco also made several runs between Chicago and Los Angeles locked in a cramped battery box of the Golden State Limited. “Crawled out humpbacked, though,” he explained. “My ol’ spine had sprung a reverse curve, like a croquet wicket.” Even more harrowing was riding the rods under the belly of a passenger or freight car, sometimes with the use of a “tramp’s ticket,” a grooved board designed to fit more comfortably over the rod than was the human body. Hardhearted trainmen occasionally used a special booby trap for riders of the rods: a spike dangling from a wire that was played out beneath the cars and bounced up from each tie, every blow “freighted with death,” according to Jack London.

Few who followed the calling died in bed. In the twenty years after 1890, 32,276 tramps or hoboes were reported killed on American railroads, at least a third of them on western lines. Countless more were maimed for life. More than one met death when a missed hold sent him under the wheels; more than one came to an end at the hands of an overzealous brakie or railroad bull or starved when locked into a boxcar shunted onto an unused siding. Not that the demise of a railroad trespasser was worthy of much notice, as an item from a Montana newspaper of 1884, given here in its entirety, would indicate: Thursday night a tramp who undertook to get on the brake beam of a car in a train at Eddy, Missoula county, fell and the wheels ran over his head, crushing it and spattering his brains along the track. No inquest was deemed necessary. Frequently, however, inquests were required, and railroad crews lost valuable time because of them. As a result not all transient deaths were reported, and a knowledgeable railroad man pointed out in 1907 that there was “hardly a railroad line in this country but what has private graveyards on its own right of way.”

To railroads, interlopers were in the long run more costly than train robbers. They were responsible for theft and thoughtless damage to freight and rolling stock. Tramps might burn up a boxcar trying to keep warm, spoil the upholstery on a handsome carriage shipped overland by flatcar under canvas, or ruin cars of bananas in west Texas by leaving the hatches open. Sometimes sharp lawyers brought lawsuits against railroads on behalf of tramps injured when thrown off moving trains by crewmen.

Railroads complained that town authorities did not enforce the law, but simply moved the vagrants along as rapidly as possible—by rail. Actually, local policies varied greatly; there were good towns and there were “horstile” ones. Friendly or at least neutral cities like Denver and Salt Lake City gave the tramp an opportunity to “throw his feet”—to beg for food, clothing, or money—or to replenish his wardrobe nocturnally from “gooseberry bushes,” or clotheslines. San Francisco was even better, for there, said Flynt, was “a large native class whose character is not much higher than that of the tramp himself, so that he is lost among them—often to his own advantage.” In the larger cities, too, was the tramp’s “greatest friend on earth, next to his mother,” the mission, whose glory seemed “to be measured by the number of biscuits” served to vagrants. Between the Salvation Army—the “Sally”—and the Good Will Industries of the Methodist Church—the “Willy”—the knowing tramp could meet most of his physical needs if he hit the Big Town occasionally. Tramps and hoboes alike took advantage of mission facilities, though not without a cynicism frequently reflected in ribald parodies of mission hymns:

I don’t care if it rains or freezes I’ll be safe in the arms of Jesus. I can lose my shirt and britches, He’ll still love us sons of bitches.


Begging had its perils, as the tramp discovered who tried to coax a Missoula housewife into giving him a meal in 1886 and “was chased off the premises by the irate lady armed with a six-shooter,” according to a local editor. In most towns in the Southwest a man on the bum could get thirty days on the road gang just for being there; not all were as fortunate as the tramp arrested in Texas who was released after officers were “awed” to find a copy of the works of Shakespeare in his possession—and a stolen copy at that. Occasionally the inhabitants of a town took matters into their own hands. A bruised and battered tramp once described to Jim Tully what he called “sapping day” in a particularly unfriendly Iowa community: Well, sir, they ketches four of us and makes us run the ga’ntlet, and believe me, I run. The natives stands on each side for a quarter of a mile or more. … They hit us wit’ stones and whips. … Some guy caught me wit’ a rock here where you see this bump. … I’ll bet there was two hundred men there, an’ a dozen women. …