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Hobo Life: 1915

Hobo Life: 1915

Location unknown circa 1915. "Tramps in boxcar playing cards." 5x7 glass negative, George Grantham Bain Collection. View full size.


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Family lore

tells that my great-uncle John Shea was a hobo back then. I wonder if one of these guys is he.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night

alive as you and me!

I can hear

Arlo Guthrie singing "The City Of New Orleans" -- the part that goes "the rhythm of the rails is all they feel."

Four months ago

"I told my wife I was running out to get some cigs."
"Are you in or not?"
"Oh, sorry. I'll see your twigs and raise you a handful of hay."

Dressing style

You know, I think these tramps are actually far better dressed than most employed men I see on the street today.

Mum and the bum

For the first several years of my life my father worked for Southern Pacific as a telegrapher. Our family routinely had contact with hobos, tramps and bums.

It was not uncommon to find some very well educated men traveling the rails as a hobo. I was told by my mother that many times she would let hobos hold me as an infant and they would sit and talk. She said you could tell it made them think of home.

Hobo camps were common and most people left them alone. When tramps or bums hit the area there was more often trouble.

My father related a story to me in which a bum burst into our single room home (under the Swithing Tower) one night when it was cold. Father was upstairs at work. A bum was going to force his way in and stay by the iron stove. What he did not know was my mother was a "crack shot" with a small pistol she kept tucked away. Rather than call for Father, she pulled the gun out and forced the man outside. The bum challenged her. He didn't think she could handle the gun. Mother pointed it at a bottle by a fencepost and fired. Now, more than likely it was by luck, but the bottle shattered. The bum ran for the hills all wide-eyed.

Word got around that there was a lady living at the Yard "who could kill ya!" We never had problems again. Not surprisingly, the hobos in the area always kept an eye out for our family and made sure we were safe!

As we got older, all of us Railroad Kids would wander off to the camps and visit with the hobos. It was a different time. A time when you knew who you could trust.

Works & Dreams

Forget Wikpedia, trust the old hoboes who described it this way::

A hobo works and dreams.
A tramp dreams and works.
A bum is too lazy to do either.

In the cards

Judging by the number of cards per player the scorecards on the ground, I'm guessing these guys are playing three-handed euchre.

Since euchre is played mainly in the upper Midwest, I'm going to guess this was within smelling distance of the Great Lakes.

[How far away from the Great Lakes do they have to get before they stop playing? - Dave]

Emmett Kelly

That guy on the right sure does look like him, only he doesn't need any makeup.

Not an easy life

Hobos faced all sorts of dangers -- from freezing to death on trains, to being beaten by railway "bulls," to being murdered by other hobos. It wasn't uncommon for newspapers to include methods of dealing with unwanted hobos, including hints on poisoning them. My father rode the rails for a time until he witnessed the death of another man who was knocked from the top of a train.

I highly recommend "Hard Travellin': The Hobo and His History" by Kenneth Allsop. A fascinating glimpse into the life and history of hobos.

Hobo or Tramp

This is according to Wikipedia:

Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but in their own sight they are sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.

My Dad, in 1933,

at age 16 left his home in depression-ridden Flint, Michigan, to hobo his way via rail to California. He managed to return home to Flint, and eventually graduated from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in civil engineering, becoming a professional railroad engineer. At his retirement, he was the only person to have served as Chief Engineer for 3 major railroads: the Wabash, the Norfolk and Western, and the B&O-C&O (predecessor to CSX).

On their way

Five years later, they attended the banquet for the Civitan Club.

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