Knights of the Fast Freight


“They can never kill us off the way they have the Injuns,” a hobo once told Josiah Flynt philosophically, “they” meaning society, the enemy. But the prediction ignored the forces at work; both hoboes and tramps were doomed. By the middle igao’s the oldstyle hobo laborer had gone the way of the buffalo hunter and the stagecoach driver. Farm mechanization drastically reduced the length of the harvest period and the size of the labor force required. Western railroads ceased to haul hobo labor free and were superseded by the automobile, which gave a new flexibility to the itinerant worker. In one area after another, the bindle stiff in his rustic camp by the woods or by the oil fields was replaced by men with families and flivvers, along with the other paraphernalia of permanency. Yet in his own way and his own day, like the sodbuster or the prospector, the hobo, with his marginal, reckless way of life, had been an integral part of the raw, sweaty drama of the West and of the tradition of mobility associated with the frontier.

If the Great Depression of the 1930’s again blackened the freights with transients, it was an aberration; these were not the professional tramps and hoboes of an earlier America. And subsequently the automobile, prosperity, and the new railroad technology involving remote-controlled, computerized train operations with infrequent fuel or water stops would combine to all but eliminate the tramp. Men now expressed their escapism, their wanderlust, their yen for speed, and their yearning for an absolute not through the boxcar, but on the highway or through more artificial or introspective channels. An era had ended, and tramps and hoboes, like the steam locomotive itself, became romantic relics out of the historic past, nostalgic memories of a way of life that was no longer possible.