Knights of the Fast Freight


Because “town clowns,” as the tramps called city police, would not prevent trespass, the railroads hired their own detectives, hard-nosed cinder dicks who often adopted a “scarethe-hell-out-of-‘em” policy of raiding jungles and manhandling vagrants in the yards or on the cars. Many railroad bulls built unenviable reputations, but no other gained the almost legendary stature of Cheyenne’s Jeff Carr, whose name was spoken with dread in the jungles. “A big goof he was wid a slouch-down mustash, cowboy hat, coupla guns strapped on im” was the description of a young road punk who saw him in action: Well, boy, we rode a blind out o’ Cheyenne dat same night, and dey was tree ginks on it wid us; and purty soon a guy comes ridin’ up side o’ de train like hell splittin’ tanbark on a wite horse. He reaches fer one o’ de ginks and yanks him off’n de blind, and den ketches annuder one by de belt and trows ‘im across de horse’s neck an’ starts shootin’. …

For the tramp there was a professional pride in being able to hold down a train. “Only a dub will allow himself to be circumvented by a mere train crew,” said one. But experienced crewmen often made life miserable. Sometimes the brakeman, or shack, locked the transgressors in a boxcar or nailed the door shut until the end of the run, when the law escorted them to the “Irish Club House,” as happened to one grizzled veteran at Great Falls. Frequently the relationship was a violent one, with bloody brawls, knifings, and even running gunfights between the two groups of antagonists. The Railroad Gazette was speaking of an unusually explosive situation in the summer of 1878 when it said: “The life of a trainman on a freight train in some of the Western States is just now as exciting and almost as dangerous as that of a cavalryman during the war.” Nevertheless, the trainman’s life was always one of confrontation and possible bloodshed.

On the other hand, crewmen often levied tribute against those who could pay, extracting “bo money” at the rate of a dollar a division (roughly one hundred miles). This tariff was reduced or even remitted if the rider was tearfully eloquent or carried an up-to-date union card. An astute brakie might boost his income by forty to seventy-five dollars each month, not to mention some payment in kind where cash was lacking. One hobo lamented that he had given the shack at Miles City a shirt and a pair of gloves, “as we had no kale in our jeans.”

With little love lost between them, tramps and hoboes alike frequented the jungles that cropped up near water stops, division points, and railroad intersections. A makeshift camp, ranging from a small “tomato-can” affair to some a mile long in California, the jungle was the melting pot of trampdom. In the West no color line was drawn, and a crude democracy reigned. Denizens of these “private clubs” followed definite but unwritten rules, much like those of western cow camps with respect to sharing or not wasting food, providing fuel, or cleaning utensils, with a special code to regulate jungle crime.

The jungle is best known, of course, for its mulligan stew, probably a much overrated concoction built around “a feathered bird,” that is to say, domestic poultry. To hungry men almost any food would have tasted good, even the mulligan described by one hobo as made “out of shoe heels and cow-hide with a few chips of birch thrown in for seasoning.” At the other extreme was the legendary “million-dollar mulligan” once prepared in a San Bernardino jungle after the boes raided a carload of live chickens on a siding. It was a tasty dish, but there was hell to pay in San Berdoo, for the chickens were rare pedigreed stock, the result of long years of scientific breeding, en route to the Los Angeles County Fair at Pomona.

Like other men of leisure, tramps and hoboes were fond of liquor in almost any form, whether cheap wine or a local rotgut whiskey described as “kinder a cross between a circular saw and a wild cat.” The jungles had their “canned-heat brigades,” who settled for Sterno, and their “bay horse jockies,” who made do with bay rum. Whatever the mixture, it could turn a jungle camp into a “very convivial assembly,” as Jim Tully remarked, with the clientele “stretched upon the ground, the debris of intoxication all around them.”

Under the influence of a little “whiteline,” the jungle might rock with song, for men on the road were among the last of the ballad makers and had no1 peers as parodists. Other favorite amusements were the kangaroo court and the endless spinning of yarns about road experiences. Especially popular in this womanless society were countless variations of the story of the seduction of the lady of the house by the tramp begging a handout or (better yet) a “setdown” or meal in the housewife’s kitchen. Apart from the embroidery work, the plot was generally the same: the tramp got a generous sample of the lady, her cooking, her husband’s clothes, and the advice “If you ever come around here again my husband will shoot you full of holes. And if he doesn’t, I will!”