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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
It is obvious that the tramp and the hobo shared many of the same experiences. The basic distinction between the two made the tramp an anomaly in an America that put a high premium on industry and regarded idleness as a sin. The true tramp, for his part, regarded work in the same vein. “Work … ,” said one, “has wasted more human life and happiness, and cemented the foundations of more inhuman wrong, oppression and misery than ever did the combined energies of war, physics, and bad whiskey.” “Work?” said another. “I have no time to work. I’ve got to hustle around in order to get enough to eat.” The English supertramp William Davies recalls a fellow tramp in Texas who reacted typically to an offer to work on the railroad. “Boys,” he said slowly, “I am a very sick man. I am now making my way to Houston as fast as I can, to get hospital treatment.” “Yes,” added Davies, also thinking fast. “Yes, and it shall never be said that I deserted a sick companion.”
Despite the public stereotype to the contrary, the hobo was important to the West precisely because he was a laboring man. Especially from the 1880’s to World War i he was one of the real builders of the West, called into being, like the cowboy, by a special set of circumstances. A short-term free-lance worker, he was lured to remote, far-flung western enterprises where the steady laborer would not go. Often with his blanket on his back, the hobo moved readily, switching from job to job, sometimes crossing half a continent between them. Whether as a gandy dancer in a California railroad crew, a Potlatch timberbeast, an Okanogan apple knocker, a ten-day miner in the bowels of Butte, a “diamond cutter” on the winter lakes of Minnesota, or a harvest stiff in the Kansas wheatlands, he did his bit and moved on.
Though hoboes worked in many fields, undoubtedly the largest number were in agriculture, following truck gardening or fruit or hop harvests through California into the Pacific Northwest or, at least into the mid-igao’s, flocking into the Great Plains grain harvests “like a flight of alien unclean birds,” to use the words of Hamlin Garland. At times trainmen were convinced that they were hauling a greater tonnage in hoboes than in freight; as many as a hundred and fifty were counted on a single train in South Dakota in August, 1896. A few years later a freight in Washington was so loaded with fruit pickers that a crewman called out: “All aboard. We might as well make it a passenger.”
Except for illicit “bo money” such riders paid no fare. Railroads found it difficult to enforce their own rules against vagrants in large numbers, and grain was an important freight item. Hence western lines were willing to ignore the presence of the hobo harvesters—the “blackbirds”—during harvest season, when at peak they made up roughly one third of the midwest harvest force of some two hundred thousand. Many of the hobo laborers worked with some regularity in the woods or the ice harvest during the winter, but most floated aimlessly from job to job, averaging a dozen changes a year and losing perhaps a third of their time, usually in a city skid row.
Sharp employer practices and primitive living and work conditions made for a rapid turnover of hobo labor. The veteran Frisco tried railroad construction work as a “shovel stiff” but found many disadvantages, including a smelly bunk car, “shirt-rabbits in the blankets,” and rye bread greased with sowbelly—“sowbelly with the buttons on too!” Frisco lasted a month before he was fired for “bustin’ ” the foreman.
Even if he made his winter stake in the harvest or on the railroad extra gang, many a hobo returned to “the stem” (the skid row) in the fall, “rich in suntan and experience” but without funds, as did young Ralph Chaplin, later poet laureate of the I.W.W. The typical hobo was like Frisco, who returned to Los Angeles after one brief job. “The bright lights looked so good after that hard life with the gandies,” he said, “I got drunker than a fiddler’s bitch and blowed my jack.”
There was plenty of help in getting rid of money. The hobo harvester first had to escape the wiles of local bootleggers, gamblers, and especially the prostitutes, who kept pace with the harvest in their mobile “cat wagons.” Then there were the professional yeggs, who “harvested the harvesters” on the freights, taking advantage of slow speeds on uphill grades like the Blue Mountain hump out of Pendleton in Oregon or the Great Northern hump out of Whitefish, Montana, to hijack returning harvest hands. Steve Joy, a hobo known for the glass eye he often pulled out and rapped on the bar for drinks, was once robbed in North Dakota as he headed home from the wheat harvest “with a hundred beans sewed up in ‘is pants leg.” Three armed thugs made him and four other “harvest buzzards” peel off every stitch and jump from the moving train. Joy picked cinders out of his hide for weeks after limping the ten miles into Fargo in his birthday suit. The local police fixed him up with an old street-cleaner’s uniform.