Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression

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 our nation was, in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “dying by inches.” Economic calamity plunged the country into a decade of despair, leaving millions with little or no means to support themselves and their families. From these times emerged 250,000 young people who came to be known as “boxcar boys and girls,” teenagers who shed their youth for a life on the rails, hopping trains in search of work and something -- anything – better than what they’d left behind.

“Riding the Rails” is their remarkable story, a riveting document of hope and hardship during one of the 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.

What is most surprising about "Riding the Rails" is how many people look back on their experiences with a certain nostalgia. Certainly. they recall the horror of being "hungry, cold and miserable," with nobody to help you, as one man says. But for others, their recollections bright with the flush of youth and still vibrant dreams of an unencumbered life. "I was never unhappy of lonely when I was riding the rails.," recalled Clydia Wiilliams.
"I was free.

With more than 500 interviews and stunning archival photographs by Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange, Uys so thoroughly re-creates 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. 

"Go fend for yourself," Clarence Lee's father said. "I can't afford to have you around any longer." Like hundreds of thousands of other young people across the country during the Great Depression, the 16-year-old left home, hopped a freight train, and started riding the rails. An estimated 250,000 men and women -- many of them in their teens -- turned to the trains as fast and free transportation.

Some left out of desperation and went looking for work, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles on the rumor of a job waiting farther down the line. Others left out of boredom; still others with a romantic idea of life on the road. Many realized, too late, that they were leaving little for nothing. Henry Ford, for one, thought the boxcar teens had it made: "Why it's the best education in the world for those boys, that traveling around! They get more experience in a few weeks than they would in years at school." As one contemporary observer noted, however, after about six months on the road, "the boys and girls lost their fresh outlook and eagerness. Trips across the continent were no longer educational, but were quests for bread."

Errol Lincoln Uys (pronounced "Ace") has collected thousands of letters written by boxcar boys and girls about their experiences, and peppers his chapters on the various aspects of hobo life with lengthy quotations, allowing the riders to speak for themselves.  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

"With more than 500 interviews and stunning archival photo-graphs by Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange, Uys thoroughly recreates the wretched conditions the boxcar boys and girls endured."

"An elegantly presented and quietly moving collection of firsthand reminiscences, capturing a unique moment in American history. Enthusiastically recommended for all public libraries."

"One of the most poignant memories of the wandering youth of the Great Depression.
They were among 4 million people to taste the bitterness of hobo life.  A remarkable story, as gripping as it is well-researched.

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

Letters from men and women who rode the rails during the Great Depression


Read a selection of letters from former  boxcar boys and girls, who joined an army of migrants roaming America from 1929 to 1941. "I returned home and told Mother I was leaving." writes Leslie Paul. "She didn't fight it, but she was sad. She went to her purse and gave me all the money she had: 72 cents.  I turned and left, the black satin bag over my shoulder. Had I been brave enough, I would've been coward enough to go back."

A young mother on the road during the Great Depression - FSA collection/Library of Congress


Grinding poverty, shattered family relationships, financially strapped schools with locked doors were the reasons most kids went on the road, usually with the blessing of parents at their wits end to feed them. A series of articles describes what life was like during the Great Depression, how the young hobos survived the perils of the road, and how the Civilian Conservation Corps offered a New Deal for youth.

Roustabout worker during the Great Depression - FSA.Library of Congress


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 covering every state in the United States derive from 3,000 letters written by men and women who rode the rails between 1929 and 1941. The core selection of historical photographs in the archives comes from the Farm Security Administration collection in the Library of Congress.

Riding the Rails: American Experience award-winning documentary


In its extraordinarily tender account of the lives of teenage freight-train riders, Riding the Rails offers a visionary perspective on the presumed romanticism of the road and cautionary legacy of the Great Depression.
Winner of 30 national /international awards, including a Peabody Award, "Best Documentary" Directors Guild of America; Los Angeles Film Critics


Author's Note | Errol Lincoln Uys

A daring generation of America's children

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 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.

Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression by Errol Lincoln Uys

Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression - Audiobook


At the height of the Great Depression, 250,000 teenagers 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. Whether with the blessings of parents or as runaways, they hit the road and went in search of a better life.

By summer 1932, the "roving boy" had become a fixture on the American landscape. The occasional girl was sighted, too, most passing unrecognized in male garb. Girls especially did not make the decision to hit the road lightly, for 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.

One of the vital, neglected sagas of America in the 1930s, the story of the boxcar boys and girls has seldom been told. Riding the Rails draws primarily on letters and oral histories of 3,000 men and women who hopped freight trains, their incredible journeys an unforgettable and moving story.

Riding the rails was a rite of passage for a generation of young Americans which profoundly shaped their lives. Self-reliance, compassion, frugality, and a love of freedom and country are at the heart of the lessons these they learned. Their memories are a mixture of nostalgia and pain; their later 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.

It is also an inspiration to all who share a nostalgia for the road and the freedoms sought there.


Begins streaming on AMAZON and iTunes on January 26, 2021