Depression Hobo Train Travel


Freight-hopping youth near Bakersfield, California (National Archives and Records Administration) courtesy Wikimedia Commons


Riding the rails became a common means of transportation after the Civil War as the railroads moved west. The practice took off during the Great Depression.  These mostly migrant workers were known as hobos. Depression hobos were often just migrants out of work. Some had hard luck lives and took to gambling or booze.

Figuring out which freight train to hop takes planning and ingenuity. Hobos might hide at a rail yard and catch a train before it starts moving. They’d better know in which direction it is going. Box cars, grainers, and gondolas are rideable if hobos catch the train on the fly. Hobos ride above, beneath, or between cars.


It is no fun riding on a coal car and then hopping off again. Hobos often form communities. They “jungle up” for dinner and heat canned food over a fire.  They jump on and off of moving trains in case they are searched by the bulls at stops.

Railroad police are known as bulls. Enforcement varies. In some places train hopping is a crime. In others, bulls look the other way.

Freight train riding is dangerous. Today more hobos are ex-convicts, making violence more common.

Courtesy Wikipedia


8 responses

  1. In the 1930’s hobos (whom we called “tramps” would leap from trains in Richmond, MA and come to the doors of the homes in village. Abbie Stephens lived closest to the station and she kept her door locked. When a tramp approached, she’d call Ibby Hooker who would call Hazel Dickson who would call my mother — all hastily locking doors after leaving bread or water on the porch. Some would sleep in our barn where a tin cup was kept so that Grampa could give them warm milk right from the cows.

  2. I enjoyed reading this one. It reminds me of my father in law’s story about how he as a youth of 16, hopped on freight trains all the way from Washington DC- to California, one way or another, to get to a ranch where he worked his way through high school as a cowboy. No other way he could get there-
    He told us he met plenty of hoboes along the way. This was in 1915.

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