Hitting the Rails: Hobo Life

By Karen Harris

1st April 1939: Tramp, John Walpole, draws a chalk cross on the wall of a farmhouse where they gave him food. A mark to remind himself when he passes that way again that they treated him well. Source: (gettyimages.ie)

When the Great Depression hit, jobs dried up and families lost their houses and farms. In desperation, many hard-working, able-bodied men left home in search of any work they could get. Thousands upon thousands of predominantly young, white, single men hopped on board the hobo culture, riding the rails in search of odd jobs and seasonal work. Lest you think this group was just a bunch of lazy, free-loading, trouble-causing bums, let’s look at the ins and outs of the Great Depression’s hobo culture. 

Hobos used the nation's railway system as their mode of transportation. Source: (vox.com)

A New Class of People

Never before in the history of the United States had so many of its citizens been unemployed. With no job and no home, men were forced to go to where the jobs were. Hitching rides in boxcars along the nation’s railways, these hobos, as they came to be known, carried their few possessions with them and lived a nomadic lifestyle. The transient nature of hobo life meant that the men were creating a new class of people. They weren’t bums who refused to work or tramps who survived on hand-outs. They want to work because accepting charity would hurt their pride. 

Looking for work. Source: (theplanetweekly.com)

Agriculture and Factory Work

The economic instability of the 1930s meant that a factory could need a thousand workers for a short duration of time, like one month, in order to produce and fill an order, but would have to drop back to only a hundred workers after that job was complete. Factory owners relied on hobos, or transient workers to fill these short-term positions. Likewise, many of the sprawling farms in the west—those unaffected by the Dust Bowl—needed to hire on additional help at planting time and harvest time. The hobos understood this and flocked to those areas in time for seasonal hiring. 

A 1930s hobo jungle. Source: (collectorsweekly.com)

Hobo Jungles

Groups of hobos often set up makeshift camps near railways. Like independent communities, the hobo camps, or jungles as they were called, provided the men with a safe place to spend the night, take a bath, bandage wounds, wash out clothes, swap stories, sing songs, and share a meal. But mostly, the hobo jungles offered a sense of belonging and comradery. Hobos could bond over their shared situation and exchange information about jobs and the locations of other hobo jungles. It was the companionship that drew the hobos together. 

Hobos used symbols as a form of communication. Source: (antiquearcheology.com)

Hobo Hieroglyphics

Hobos had a way of looking out for each other and, over time, they even developed a symbol-based communication system—sort of like hobo hieroglyphics. Using chalk or charcoal, or carving with a pocketknife, they left symbols on trees, fence posts, sidewalks, walls, and under bridges to let other hobos traveling through the area know important information. The symbols pointed the way to hobo jungles, showed the best spots for hopping a boxcar, and even indicated which houses in town would offer a sandwich in exchange for an odd job.

Source: (antiquearcheology.com)

Dodging the “Bulls”

Although the nation’s railroads offered an easy and free way to travel across the country, it was illegal to hitch a ride on a boxcar. The crews working on the trains were typically more sympathetic to the plight of the hobos but would sometimes lock them inside a boxcar and call the authorities. The railroad police, however, waged a constant battle with the hobos. Called “bulls,” the railroad police threw the hobos off the trains unless they could pay the passenger fare, charged a hefty fine, or jailed them. More than a few hobos were sentenced to hard labor on chain gangs. 

Hobos were a common sight in railroad towns. Source: (people.howstuffworks.com)

Hobos Were a Fact of Life

Seeing so many homeless men clustered together in hobo jungles wasn’t a cause for concern for the residents of towns located along railways. Although there were occasional problems, for the most part, the hobos were honest, law-abiding young men who were simply looking for work. Still, some communities didn’t take kindly to the growing hobo jungles. They would form vigilante groups to run the hobos out of town. For most people, though, hobos were a fact of life and they looked the other way at the vagrants walking through their town. 

Source: (curiousity.com)

The End of the Hobo Era

As the United States emerged from the Great Depression and as the country entered World War II, the nation needed every able-bodied young man it could get to help the war effort. Hobos could give up their transient lifestyle and trade their economic instability for a military career or full-time factory job. Although some hobos refused to give up their carefree lifestyle, most did, and the number of homeless, unemployed men drastically decreased. Today, the hobo lifestyle of the Great Depression is remembered in books and movies. 

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.