At the height of the Great Depression, two hundred and fifty thousand teenage hoboes were roaming America. Some left home because they felt they were a burden to their families; some fled homes shattered by the shame of unemployment and poverty. Some left because it seemed a great adventure. With the blessing of parents or as runaways, they hit the road and went in search of a better life.
Public perceptions of the road kids differed. There were people who saw the American pioneer spirit embodied in the young wanderers. There were others who feared them as the vanguard of an American rabble potentially as dangerous as the young Fascists then on the march in Germany.
By summer 1932, the "roving boy" had become a fixture on the American landscape. The occasional girl was sighted too, mostly passing unrecognized in male garb. Girls especially never took the decision to hit the road lightly, for they knew they were stepping into a world filled with danger. It was the same for young African-Americans, for whom the beckoning rails could be doubly perilous should they lead into towns where the color of their skin would make them outcasts.
Thomas Minehan, author of Boy and Girl Tramps of America, estimated that 10 per cent of those he met were girls. They traveled in pairs, sometimes with a boy-friend, and not infrequently with a tribe of 10 or 12 boys. Minehan described "Kay," who was 15: "Her black eyes, fair hair, and pale cheeks are girlish and delicate. Cinders, wind and frost have irritated but not toughened that tender skin. Sickly and suffering from chronic under-nourishment, she appears to subsist almost entirely upon her finger nails which she gnaws habitually."
Eighty-five per cent of the white youths said they were seeking work; for the African-Americans the percentage was even higher at 98 per cent. Fifty percent of the African-Americans had been unemployed for two years or longer.
A 1935 survey of 20,000 transients conducted by Herman Schubert at Buffalo, New York, was one of the rare studies to enumerate African-American youths. Sociologist Schubert interviewed 2,308 whites and 662 African-Americans in the 15-to-24 age group. The young African-Americans had been on the road longer than the whites, the median age of wandering for the former about six months as compared with three months for the latter.
Are they bums? Not unless one wants to classify a goodly section of the remainder of the country's population as such," Schubert concluded.
It was a thrill to ride the top of a boxcar running across the Great Plains or to catch the blinds of a famous flyer like The Twentieth Century Limited. It was also a ride accompanied by constant danger that could turn deadly in an instant.
The Interstate Commerce Commission's annual reports show that during the years 1929 to 1939, 24,647 trespassers were killed and 27,171 injured on railroad property. Since railroad agents placed the percentage of minors at one third, there can be no doubt that thousands of young nomads met a gruesome fate on the rails.
Hospitals treated transients only if they were seriously ill. They suffered diseases due to exposure, lack of cleanliness, vermin, contagion or infection. Ill-clad and undernourished, sometimes days would go by without food. "I was hungry all the time. Dreadfully hungry," remembered John Fawcett. "I'd never been hungry before. I went two or three days without anything to eat. In a short time on the road, I lost 15 to 20 pounds. Your hunger hurts physically."
In summer, boys followed the harvests in the West. A young hobo might start with the hay harvest in California and the Rocky Mountain states in early summer. Later on there was corn and wheat in the Mid-West; and in the early fall, hops, berries and fruits in the Pacific North-West. Winter could be spent in the cotton fields of Texas and the South-West. In early spring, a harvester might drift into Southern California for the vegetable and citrus crops.
Before the close of his first month in office, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an act creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC.) Unemployed and unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25 were eligible to enroll. They were to be paid $30 a month, of which $25 was to be sent directly to their needy and dependent families. So urgent and volatile did the administration view the youth crisis that the first camp was set up on April 17, 1933 — just 12 days after the CCC was officially inaugurated. By early July, 250,000 young men were settled in 1,468 forest and park camps.
"As there's no single answer to why boys leave home, there's no single answer to what will keep them there after —and if — they go back," said one case worker. "But if I had to make such an answer it would be jobs. Just that. Honest-to-goodness jobs that would let a fellow feel that he's a man, running his own life."
Those jobs would only come when the Great Depression ended as the country prepared for war. In 1942, even as the CCC camps were winding down, thousands of "Depression Doughboys," who had served in FDR's "Tree Army," were on their way to Europe and Africa. As trains carrying troops and materiel crossed the country day and night, the occasional rider was still glimpsed in a boxcar door or sitting on the catwalk. It was the end of the last hobo era. The boys and girls who rode the rails had gone to war.
Riding the rails was a rite of passage for a generation of young people and profoundly shaped the rest of their lives. Self-reliance, compassion, frugality, a love of freedom and country are at the heart of the lessons they learned. Their memories are a mixture of nostalgia and pain; their late musings still tinged with the fear of going broke again. At journey's end, the resiliency of these survivors is a testament to the indomitable strength of the human spirit.
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Depression era photographs courtesy of National Archives and Library of Congress