Freight train, courtesy Library of Congress, Great Depression era, color photo


Errol Lincoln Uys

a writer's website

Hunger, waiting for handout, Great Depression era, courtesy Library of Congress image


Riding the Rails Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression, cover



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Riding the Rails

Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression


Errol Lincoln Uys



A selection of letters

from the Boys and

Girls Who Rode the Rails

What Life Was Like

During the Great Depression

How Young Americans

Survived the Hard Times

of the Great Depression

Our National Parks and the

Civilian Conservation Corps

— How the CCC Saved a

Lost Generation

of America's Youth

About the Writer








a film by Michael Uys

and Lexy Lovell


Peabody Award

"Best Documentary"

Directors Guild of America

Los Angeles Film Critics

19 national/international awards


Also by Errol Lincoln Uys

Brazil by Errol Lincoln Uys

Buy Now on Amazon

A spellbinding saga on a truly epic scale

that brings to life Brazil and its history.

"A Masterpiece" - L'Express, Paris
"Pulsing with Vigor"- Publishers Weekly
"Informative, Intriguing"- Washington Post
“Captivating, Compelling” – James Michener

Brazil Home Page




Recommended Reading




Boxcar kid catches a freight in Great Depression era


Click the Picture

Hop Aboard an Online Exhibition

Listen to oral histories of teenage hoboes from the Great Depression


Did a member of your family ride the rails during the Great Depression?


You are invited to view the archives of 3,000 letters, photographs and books now housed in the National Heritage Museum at Lexington, Massachusetts.


Do you have letters, photographs or other memorabilia of the boxcar boys and girls? Consider donating them to the National Heritage Museum's unique

collection. Let future generations know of the pluck and courage of the daring young men and women who rode the rails during those hardest of times.



33 Marrett Road/Rte. 2A

Lexington, MA 02421

Monday-Saturday, 10 AM - 5 PM

Sunday, noon-5 PM

Free admission. Free parking.

Handicapped accessible


TTY: 781/274-8539


National Heritage Museum official web site





"We thought it was the magic carpet...
the click of the rails... romance."


"The end of the rainbow was always 
somewhere else and it kept us moving."


"Most of all I remember the loneliness. 
More than once I cried. I felt so sad, 
so utterly alone.



During the Great Depression, more than a quarter of a million teenagers left their homes and hopped freight trains looking for work or adventure. This is their story.

I first became interested in the boxcar boys and girls when I read Boy and Girl Tramps of America by Thomas Minehan, who rode the rails with the young nomads in summer 1932. I suggested to my son, Michael, a film maker, that the subject would make a powerful documentary. The suggestion led to the award-winning PBS "American Experience" film, Riding the Rails, made by Michael and his wife, Lexy Lovell. 

In the book, I draw on 3,000 letters from boxcar boys and girls sent to the documentary makers. I had access to 40 hours of filmed interviews with 20 men and women chosen as potential candidates for the film. 

Many letters are handwritten, as from old friends sharing honest-to-God stories. Time and again, I held a letter in my hand and felt a connection to a lonely boy or girl standing beside the railroad tracks 60 years ago. It left me with a deep sense of the inner strength and faith of ordinary Americans and their belief in this land.

We learn of their struggle to survive on the streets of America and know their bitter disappointments, their sense of loss of childhood, their frustrations at the lack of opportunity. “When I think of all this traveling across the land, searching for the things we had lost, there is a place inside my chest that still hurts,” recalls one rider.


When they left the rails and got a hold on their lives, they never let go. Many tell of keeping the jobs they found for 30 or 40 years. And the girls they met, too: many write joyously of their enduring devotion to the sweethearts they married when they settled down. Their stories told in their own words resonate with the pluck and courage they showed in going to seek a better life.


Illustrated with rare archival photos and drawing primarily on letters and oral histories of three thousand men and women who hopped freight trains, Riding the Rails brings to life a neglected saga of America in the 1930s. Self-reliance, compassion, frugality, and a love of freedom and country are at the heart of the lessons these teens learned.

This unforgettable narrative of a daring generation of America's children who rode the rails in search of a better life is a powerful reminder of what might turn up around the next curve. They are an inspiration to all who share a nostalgia for the road and the freedoms sought there.



Great Depression hoboes in doorway of a boxcar

"Riding the Rails" is a riveting document of hope and  hardship during one of this nation's bleakest eras. For all  that has been written about the Depression, the travails  of those under the age of 18 have been sorely  underrepresented. Gripping and well-researched, this  book by Errol Lincoln Uys is a companion piece to the  award-winning documentary of the same name.  With more than 500 interviews and stunning archival  photographs by Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and  Dorothea Lange, Uys so thoroughly recreates the  wretched conditions the boxcar boys and girls endured  that the reader can all but hear the cadence of the  trains on the tracks and the lonesome wail at every  whistle stop."

This is an elegantly presented and quietly moving  collection of firsthand reminiscences, capturing a unique  moment in American history. Uys, a veteran writer and  editor, is the author of the historical novel Brazil.  Enthusiastically  recommended for all public libraries.


Whether you're a "gaycat" (novice rider) or a "dingbat"  (seasoned hobo), Riding the Rails is entertaining and  inspiring, recapturing a time when the country was  "dying by inches." -- Sunny Delaney, History Editor



A remarkable story


One of the most poignant memories of the wandering youth of the Great Depression


As gripping as it is well researched...



Riding the Rails sets out to tell about a few of the 250,000 teenagers who hopped freights and lived the hobo life in the wake of the 1929 Stock Market crash... paints a brisk, colorful, fast-paced portrait of lean times and high hopes.



Print and Kindle


Riding the Rails cover for Kindle Edition



Boxcar Boy Runs to Grab a Ride in the Great Depression




The story of the 250,000 boxcar boys and girls of the Great Depression is one of the vital sagas of America in the 1930s.  These archives derive from 3,000 letters written by men and women who rode the rails between 1929 and 1941; follow-up questionnaires and interviews complete a rare first-hand account of Americans living through one of this nation’s bleakest eras.


go to the Archives>>>














Errol Lincoln Uys

Abandoned locomotive on the Madeira Mamore Railroad in Brazil



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