Ever since there were railroads there were hobos. Mostly men, they rode the freight cars from place to place usually looking for work. The hobos have become synonymous with the depression but existed before and after the depression.
Hobo's Lullaby, a song written by Goebel Reeves during the depression, and sung here Sung by Owen Moore tells the story of the hobos. Woody Guthrie, himself a hobo for much of his life, said that Hobo's lullaby was his favorite song. The photographs that "play" whilst the song is playing in the vid below are a stark reminder of the horror of being poor in bad times.
A First Hand Recollection of Ridin' the Rails in the Depression
Most of the stories of the depression are third hand or apocryphal. This narrative is true – it comes from club member Earl Craighill's written family history. Riding the rails was a way of life for a lot of people. For a first hand account of what life was like in those hard times read on:
What year were you discharged from Army? October 12, 1926
I was just getting out of the Army (in Colorado?). I met a woman who had a car that she wanted driven back to Pittsburgh. I told her I wanted to go back to Scranton, 'cause that was where I was born and raised. I thought she was going to pay me but no agreement was made. I spent all the cash I had (from the army) on gas and eating. When I got there, she wasn't there; she was in Florida. Her brother was there and he asked me what was up. He didn't have any money to give me and so I stayed with him for a couple a days. He must of figured I was going to live off him until she came back. I said, "No, I wanted to go to Scranton". He gave me two dollars. He gave me a ride to the freight yards and I caught a freight train to Scranton.
In Scranton I stayed with friends of my mother's for a few days: Nattie Howe and her husband—he worked in the mines. I never worked in the mines that time—there wasn't any work there so they took me to the freight yard and I caught a freight to New York City. I had $2.00 and went to employment agency—stayed around all day. The next day, the man asked me if I was a native from around here. Like a dumb-bell, I said, "No". He says, "Then there's no chance of your getting a job around here". He said "Why don't you go up to Buffalo, you could do good there."
So I hung around the freight yards and found out about a train to Niagara Falls. I was getting hungry and I didn't have any money, I had spent it all eating in New York City. When I was a kid our folks took us up to Niagara Falls and we learned to sit on bench and wrap up in newspapers to keep warm. So I sat on the bench and went to sleep and when I woke up, I was soaking wet. I thought what was that—the Mist—came up from the falls. So I got up and walked to the railroad yards. I asked a guy, "any chance of catching a freight to Buffalo?" "22 miles" he said. "No, they got railroad bulls here by the dozen. You wouldn't get anywhere near the yard here. I found the highway and walked almost half of that before a guy picked me up."
Gosh, I was getting pretty hungry. Finally, I found a residential district and went up to one house. " I need work so I can eat. I don't want to eat for nothing."
"No" at the first house, "We're kind of broke in here ourselves." Went to another house and the woman said, well there's a fence out that back needs repair. Here's staples and hammer." So I fixed the fence and it didn't take but half an hour. I come back to house. I opened screen door put hammer in. "Just a minute," she said. Pretty soon, here she comes with a dandy big sandwich. And what do you know, right behind her was a cop—it was her husband. He kept an eye on me. I really appreciated the sandwich. It made me feel like a million dollars.
Was that the trip where you had to buy the job?
Yeah, in Buffalo, you had to buy the job. I went down to buy a job, but I didn't have the $3.00. I was standing behind a guy ahead of me who had bought a job. He says "where is this job? It was in an ice house. They told him the name of an artificial icehouse. I got to thinking about it, thought I'd see if I could get out there and beat the guy to the job, if they would give me a job. They gave me a job for one day only. Then, here comes this other guy and they put him on too. I got my one-day job, cause some fellow was out sick. I only worked one day and they only paid me two and a half, the job would have cost three dollars. Big cakes of ice needed to be stacked for storage. It was about four hundred cakes of ice in sizes cut down to 10 lbs. or 25 lbs. The iceman would deliver the blocks of ice the next day to the customers for their icebox.
Then I went down to the employment office and they were hiring extra guys for the railroad. They kept calling names of the guys who had written down their names. "Pete Johnson Pete Johnson" nobody answered. "Here" I says. So I went to work on the railroad for 2 weeks. It was a job out on the railroad putting in the track. There must have been thirty or forty of us in the bunch, we lived in the railroad cars.
I never told anybody about this before. I was really bothered with hemorrhoids—I was bleeding so bad. I wrote a letter to Jenny, my sister (who was a nurse). Jenny sent a jar of stuff and I used it and to this day never bothered again.
Finally, after two weeks, I'd had enough, so I went to the office in Buffalo to get some money. I got my slip to check out of the job. They didn't give you too much, you had to pay for board. Must have had about $90.00. I was going to take a bus and I thought, Hell, I'll just catch a freight to Denver. So I rode a freight all the way to Chicago.
I rode the freight into Chicago. In those days, they had a fast express freight—I was lucky to get it. But the only place I could ride was up in the tender behind the coal bin–everything was sealed up. They picked up water on the fly. Going through Indiana, they had a trough with water in it. The firemen would lower the spout, they didn't even stop to take water on. They'd lower the spout and here comes this water. I got into the Chicago yards and I was soaking wet.
In Chicago I found a sand house—that's what the railroad used to keep the sand they used on the track dry. It was so hot–steam heated–so nice and warm, I slept for a good while. The next morning, I went to skid row restaurant. They had pork chops there for 35 cents. Boy, that sounded really good. But they smelled so bad, I ate the bread and left the pork chops. When I got up to pay them, they asked "what's the matter?" I said, "Guess I wasn't as hungry as I thought."
I caught a freight into Council Bluffs—that wasn't hard– (that is where my brother, Lester, used to live) and walked across the bridge to Omaha. It was 50 or 60 miles to Lincoln, Nebraska. I got pretty smart and knew how to look for the freight yards, where they were going out, which way they were headed. There were some weeks down there, right at the edge of the railroad yards, where they were pulling out. So I asked one of the guys there, where's that one going? He said: "Going West. That one goes to Denver." There was a whole bunch of guys there and I was on the end. Here comes a couple of these railroad bulls (railroad detectives). One guy had a piece of hose with lead in it in his hand. "Where are you going?" He started at the other end of the line, asking the guys. One guy had a suitcase. "Open it up." "Whatcha got in suitcase?" kicked the suitcase and everything fell out. They guy started to pick his stuff and the bull hit him across the back across the spine. I'd pretty much learned what was going on and I said, "That SOB is not going to get me." I didn't see any gun on them and I ran fast and got out of there out of the railroad yard. I ran through the weeds, up on the highway, got a ride into another town and here comes this slow freight train and I hopped the train to Denver.
Amazing story isn't.