Hobo's Haven

The Way of A 'bo

This site will be about the adventures of the American Hobo. A very misunderstood phenomenon that grew out of poor people "hitching" free rides on the railroads in the early days of America.

~~Robert Service~~

Brief History And Foreword

The history of the hobo really came into being after the Civil War. Many Southern Veterans found their homes burned, their property in a sad state and jobs and money not available. In an attempt to obtain money for their families survival many headed west where the effects of the war was much less devastating and some jobs were rumored to be available.The Northern Veterans were somewhat better off but some found their jobs were no longer available or the situation with girlfriends, wives and family had changed and they too left for places unknown. The best or fastest mode of transportation was the trains.

Most had no money for fares so "hopping" or "flipping" a train became the most popular method of getting from job to job. It is well to remember that most of these men were not bums, they were willing to work at anything that paid or would provide them a meal and maybe a place to sleep. Farmers were quick to use them as field workers and in cattle country many took to the cowboy life-style. Many settled in the agricultural mid-west and sent for their families.

The Great Depression of the 1930's saw the greatest influx of these migrant workers and as a lot of farmers were still using them as field hands they started carrying their own hoe. These workers were called hoe boys, which was shortened to "hoe bo's" and very quickly this was even further condensed into "hobo's". Many farmers would stand at the side of the tracks and hold up one finger -- this would indicate to the hobo that work was available and the wage was one dollar a day.

During this era it is estimated that as many as 4 million Americans were on the roads, of which 250,000 were teenagers. With so many hobo's out there the railroads hired many more railroad yardmen to check the trains. Their jobs was to collect fares or evict the 'bo's that had no money for passage. It was common practice to take at least half the money in the 'bo's possession for a ticket to however far it would take them. Laws at that time would put the 'bo in a jail for vagrancy if they had no money. Many bulls as they were called were extremely hard on the 'bo and many were beaten before being turned over to the local police. Many a 'bo would enjoy a night or two in the jail as it meant food and shelter. Sometimes tho the 'bo was turned out before getting a meal as the police just did not have the money to feed them. And if there was work to be done around town the poice sometimes would tell the 'bo where to go to look for a meal if he was willing to work for it. And most were very willing for, as one 'bo put it--a hobo is a drifting worker.

Many hobo's were uneducated and a system of "signs" developed to show a passing 'bo where there might be an easy touch, a job or even a doctor. A "WW" meant a bad dog not a good looking lady as one might suspect and a cross meant a person of religious faith lives here or perhaps a parsonage. A skull and crossbones indicated medical attention might be had here and a line drawing of a man holding his hands up meant a man with a gun lives here. A simple circle was enough to send a 'bo on his way as it meant nothing happening here. There are many many more a 'bo would draw to keep his fellow travelers well informed.

Many a hobo has lost a limb or life trying to "hop" a ride.Even after getting on there was danger as all trains were not freights pulling box cars. One of the most dangerous was the tanker cars. For except between the cars there was only the walkway (along the side of the tanker and only 12 inches wide) or the "rods" (connecting iron rods beneath the car) to get on to, or sometimes engineers would allow them to ride the cow catcher. This was especially dangerous in long tunnels because of blow-back from the coal burning engines that would subject the riders there to smoke and burning cinders as the pressure of the rushing train would create a void at the front causing the smoke to roll forward after striking the low tunnel ceiling.

So the preferred method of travel was in an empty boxcar where the 'bo usually could find a spot to sit or lay and cover himself with newspaper to ward off the cold in winter or lay on them in warm weather. Storytelling and cards were the most popular forms of passing time between stations. But most just sat in the open doors of the box car and enjoyed the scenery because, as one hobo put it--it's something you never forget.To sit in the boxcar door with your feet hanging down--it's absolute peace and freedom. Rather than money, matchsticks were generally used as stakes in the card games. Woe be unto the 'bo caught cheating at cards or stealing from his fellow 'bo's. He would quickly find himself being tried in a "kangaroo court" which dealt harshly with those found guilty. Usually a guilty person was given a choice of two punishments -- being stripped to the underwear and shoes and put off the train or out of the "jungle" or suffer a severe beating from all the others. Most chose the former.

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