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The Hobo Is Dead. Long Live the Hobo.

by Alex Brand


The American hobo has long been both a romanticized figment of our country's collective imagination and a real, functional member of society. He has been the proud star of movie and song, secretly poisoned and publicly hung, and labeled everything from the "belated frontiersman" (Anderson, 65) to the "submerged tenth" (London). While our feelings may be ambivalent towards the hobo, there is no doubt that the hobo has had a culture and landscape all his own. There can also be no doubt that the hobo, as seen by the history books - the bindle-carrying migrant worker riding the rails to and from work - has all but died. This "original" hobo, however, has given birth to a new generation of rail riders; recreational hobos who ride the rails for thrills rather than economic necessity. This transition from a wandering working class using the rails as free transportation to a sub-culture of adventure travelers has been caused primarily by drastic changes in the landscape used by both past and present incarnations of the hobo. The forces behind these changes stem from economic and social transformations, as well changes within the railroad industry itself.

Exactly where the term "hobo" originated will most likely never be known. Theories abound on the subject, one even claiming the term comes from the Latin homo bonus meaning "good man", but the most likely explanation comes from Nicholas Klein. A member of the hobo intelligentsia, Klein states "the name originated from the words "hoe-boy," plainly derived from work on the farm" (Allsop, 104). Whichever the case, by the 1890s the word hobo had entered the nation's lexicon, just as his landscape was becoming etched into the rail lines and cities throughout the country. Allsop's chronology also lists the late 19th century as the beginning of hobo history: "It was in the 1880s that the hobo was singled out - or, more accurately, was singling himself out - as a sub-species" (Allsop, 105).

This "singling out" of the hobo was precipitated by an unlikely combination of social, economic, and cultural forces that all coincided within a decade of each other. With the end of the Civil War in 1865, the eastern half of the United States found itself flooded with young war veterans detached from their homes and eager for adventure. "The Civil War," explains Bruns, "had turned thousands of boys into disciplined foragers, resilient, hardened... proficient in the use of the railroads, they hit the tracks" (Bruns, 7). Fortunately for the restless ex-soldier, the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, providing him with thousands of miles of adventure, free of charge, through the endless opportunities of the western frontier. The Civil War veteran turned hobo soon found he was not so unique. The economic crisis of 1873-74, which "created an unemployment mass of three million people" (Anderson, 8), spilled thousands of job seekers onto the 254,000 miles of rail that crisscrossed the country (Allsop, 44). More important than the sheer mileage of rail line, however, is the fact that these rails led the unemployed from the overcrowded cities of the East directly to the eager employers of the wheat fields, lumber camps, and ice farms of the West.

The thousands of jobless men who took to the rails at the end of the 19th century had, by the 1920s, developed a cultural and physical landscape unique to the hobo. This landscape stretched from the skid row sections of large cities, along the trackside camps known as jungles, to the various employment opportunities scattered along the rail lines throughout the West. This latter element of the hobo's landscape was perhaps the most important. Not only did the industries of the recently opened West supply the hobo with a paycheck, they also elevated him to an essential and needed member of society.

By the turn of the 20th century, the railroads had stretched from the industrial centers of the east to the natural resources of the unsettled west, opening up what Anderson describes as the "second frontier" (Anderson, 28). "Following in the wake of railroad building... [the second frontier's] main characteristics were... the establishment of the major industries needed to exploit the natural resources taken form the land, the forests, and the mines" (Anderson, 29). The hobo, Anderson states, was the "protagonist" of this "second frontier." One characteristic all the industries of this frontier had in common was a need for labor that fluctuated in accordance with the seasons. As the protagonist of the second frontier, the hobo ensured that this need would be met by "a reserve labor force capable of adapting itself to the fluctuations of seasonal employment... and who would then move when not needed" (Anderson, 9).

One of the largest employers of the hobo during the first two decades of the 20th century, the wheat belt of the Middle West and Great Plains provides a perfect example of a hobo-dependent industry and landscape. The wheat harvest began in Texas in early June, then moved steadily northward until reaching North Dakota and Canada by middle August. Although machines reduced the amount of labor needed to sow the crop, large scale, intensive labor was required for the harvesting. To meet this need, farms called on roughly 250,000 men annually to temporarily "shock" and thresh the grain, then move northward with the ripening crop (Taylor, P.). As one observer attested, hoboing was a very popular means of following the harvest: "...one could see the roofs and doorways of boxcars literally black with men enroute to the wheat fields" (Taylor, P.).

Even though the hobo was an essential member of the industrial and agricultural workforce, society deemed his lifestyle inappropriate and, when not working, relegated him to uninhabited areas outside of the city, or extremely undesirable areas inside of it. The former was known as the jungle, and it served as the home for the constantly fluctuating population of hobos who were traveling to and from job sites. The latter area, which served as home for the same fluctuating population while in the city, was known as hobohemia to the hobo, and skid row to the rest of society.

Contrary to what its name implies, the jungle was a highly organized space. Carefully chosen and diligently maintained, the jungle represented what Allsop calls a "highly complex unit of society" (Allsop, 164) complete with its own "code of ethics" (Bruns, 18). While numerous factors contributed to the quality of a jungle, among the most important were its accessibility to a railroad, the proximity of a river or running water, a dry and sheltered area for sleeping, and a discreet location away from residents and sheriffs (Anderson, 42-43). Some of these jungles were merely temporary sites, existing just long enough for a meal to be cooked or until a train arrived. Many jungles, however, were massive, semi-permanent encampments like those of California and the Pacific Northwest, where "one jungle was a mile long" (Allsop, 164). Jungles were a crucial element of the hobos' landscape because they not only provided him with a meal and a bed while traveling, they also served as "communication centers" (Allsop, 166) where hobo culture was developed and disseminated. "The jungles," Anderson states, were "where the oral transmission of patterns of behavior to the young occurred" (Anderson, 11). The fact that this transmission was able to occur in an environment that was entirely isolated from society allowed it to be all the more effective.

While the hobo's employer and the jungle served to provide him with a paycheck and communication center, respectively, it was the hobo's urban landscape that served as a (temporary) home for the greatest number of his kind. Known to the hobo as hobohemia or the main stem, and to the rest of society as skid row, hobohemia could be found in the downtown of nearly every large city equipped with a rail line. The largest of them all, however, was located in Chicago, and its hobohemia offers a perfect example of the hobos' urban landscape. With enough railroad to "equal the entire railroad mileage in Switzerland and Belgium combined..." (Anderson, 39), 1920s Chicago was the obvious focal point for hobo culture. Its hobohemia centered on Madison Street, and it was there that the hobo fresh from a job could blow his stake in a saloon, bordello, or gambling hall, then, when penniless several days later, take refuge in a mission or welfare agency. Other services found in hobohemia that catered to the hobo included the slave market, where man catchers hired hobos for distant jobs, barber colleges, pawn shops, and most importantly, lodging houses. Anderson writes: "The accommodation [the lodging house] offers range from a bed in a single room for fifty cents to a location on the floor of an empty loft for a dime" (Anderson, 50). These lodging houses, along with the many missions, housed roughly 30,000 in summer and as many as 60,000 in the winter, of which most were hobos (Anderson, 40).

Ironically, just as the thousands of temporary work sites, jungles, and hobohemias were sustaining the highest population of hobos in history economic, social, and industrial changes began to erode the hobo's well-developed culture and landscape. These changes emerged at the end of the 1920s - a time Allsop calls "the solstice of the hobo" (Allsop, 43) - and were met by further social and industrial changes in the following decades. Beginning with the decline in the demand for temporary labor and the consolidation of the railroads in the 1920s, and ending with the destruction of hobohemia in the 1950s and 1960s, these changes dramatically and permanently altered the hobo's landscape, as well as the hobo himself.

Because the demand for temporary labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created and sustained the hobo, the decline of this demand that began in the 1920s was perhaps the single most important change to affect the hobo's landscape. This decline stemmed from two main factors - the closing of the "second frontier" and the subsequent transition from temporary work camps to permanent work camps, and the increased application of labor-saving technologies in agriculture. As the more successful mining and lumber camps resisted the boom and bust nature of the frontier West and began to expand into permanent sites, so too did many towns that surrounded the work camps. As Anderson explains: the "mining and lumber camps that depended on a mobile [aka: hobo] labor force have since become mining towns with a permanent labor supply within walking distance" (Anderson, 29), thus resigning the hobo to unemployment.

The principal cause of hobo unemployment, however, was not the formation of permanent work towns but the mechanization of agriculture that accompanied the spread of new technologies. The wide spread adoption of new labor saving technology was seen on nearly every type of capital intensive farm - from cotton and sugar beets to berry and vegetable - but as mentioned previously, the case of the wheat farm provides the clearest example of this phenomenon. The mechanization of the wheat harvest was provided by the use of the combine harvester, an innovation that began to be diffused in the early 1920s. The combine, which "enabled 5 men to do the work of 320, cut and threshed the grain in a single operation..." and "rendered hand shocking unnecessary" (Taylor, P.). Within ten years, the combine harvester had become widely adopted and took the place of thousands of hobo workers. In Oklahoma, the number of laborers furnished by state employment offices to wheat farmers dropped from 11,296 in 1921 to 165 in 1932 (Taylor, P.).

Another important change to the hobo's landscape was the rapid consolidation of railroad companies that began in the 1920s, and which has continued to the present. Since its inception, the Interstate Commerce Commission, under the auspices of the Railway Transportation Act of 1920, has applied governmental pressure to the railroad industry to slim down its once massive array of private companies and lines to a more manageable and profitable number. Between 1911 and 1967, the commission facilitated the consolidation of 1,312 privately owned railroads into less than 100, which helped "shed the fat" of 40,000 miles of rail line (Allsop, 44). More than just decreasing the number of railroad companies and rail mileage, the consolidation supported by the commission made the railroads into "sleeker, tauter machines" (Taylor, N.) that are much less hobo-friendly. These new railroads are no longer owned by "small, personable, lines that are sympathetic to the hobo" (Rail Hed), but by enormous, well-funded conglomerates that see the hobo as a hindrance to efficiency and profits, and can afford the latest high-tech security measures. Furthermore, these new consolidated railroads have begun to specialize in the long-range transportation of goods across the continent rather than the short-range - that service now being provided by the truck. Thus, unlike the trains of the hobo's hey day, which ambled slowly through small town America making frequent stops, today's trains travel form Chicago to Los Angeles at 70 mph stopping only to switch crews (Bailey). This trend, coupled with less rail mileage, has drastically reduced the number of destinations from which the hobo can choose, and puts the few temporary labor opportunities that remain out of reach.

Along with the disappearance of the hobo's employment opportunities and mode of transportation, the systematic destruction of hobohemia that began in the 1950s applied the final blow to the original hobo and his landscape. Like the consolidation of the railroads, the destruction of hobohemia was sanctioned by an act of Congress - the Housing Act of 1949, under which the Urban Renewal Program operated. As Miller has pointed out, "A stated purpose [of Urban Renewal] was the elimination and prevention of slums" (Miller, 15) - otherwise known to the hobo as hobohemia. With financial backing provided by the federal government, cities across the U.S. took well-funded, methodical steps to destroy the hobohemias, slums, and skid rows that plagued their downtowns. The 12-step plan submitted to Chicago by Bogue provides a good example of this effort. Proposing to "house working men who are not alcoholics," "provide occupational training" and offer "sheltered employment," Bogues 12-steps essentially sought to "raze the buildings of skid row and flood the residents with social services while relocating them" (Miller, 13). These efforts made by Chicago and other U.S. cities proved incredibly effective: between 1950 and 1970, Lee found a 50 percent decrease in skid row characteristics nationwide (Miller, 14). Longtime hobo Roger Bruns mourns this loss of the hobo's urban landscape: "Walk along West Madison [the center of Chicago's hobohemia] today and only the skeleton remains. Most of the missions are boarded up... and many of the buildings have vanished, victims of urban renewal" (Bruns, 162).

By the 1970s, with hobohemia virtually erased from the American downtown, the hobo found his urban landscape had been permanently altered and had left him without a home. With the continued mechanization of agriculture and industry, the hobo also found he was without a job. Lastly, with further consolidation of the rail companies, decreases in rail lines and stops, and the increased use of technology to keep trespassers off trains, the hobo found his faithful mode of transportation would no longer accommodate him. While these changes to the hobo's landscape helped bring about the demise of the original hobo - the "nomad proletariat" (Anderson, 8) riding the rails to and from work - they also set the scene for the coming of the second generation of hobos - the recreational hobo.

Left behind after the demise of the original hobo was his romanticized and idealized fringe culture. In addition, there still existed thousands of miles of functioning rail lines, millions of empty boxcars, and a void left by the passing of the hobo that was filled by the second-generation of hobos. The second-generation still call themselves "hobos," and still celebrate the hobo's history and culture, but one of the only characteristics they share with their hero is the fact that they are catching free rides on freight trains. The second-generation's landscape is entirely different than their forbearers - gone are the temporary employers, slow moving, frequently stopping trains, and hobohemias of the original hobo. Instead, there exists a trimmed-down system of rail line with efficient trains making rare stops, very few opportunities for temporary employment, and hobohemia-less downtowns. This new landscape has brought about the existence of the second-generation hobo - the recreational train hopper who rides the rails for adventure, has steady employment, and lives outside of the inner-cities.

Because the new hobo's landscape is lacking the opportunities for temporary labor that employed the original hobo, the second-generation rail rider must have some sort of steady employment outside of wheat harvesting or ice farming. The recreational rider is often times a well-paid urban professional (the much hated yuppie hobo) or a bored college student, who obviously doesn't depend on temporary labor (Howe). Furthermore, because of the decrease in rail lines and stops, the new rail rider must not rely on hoboing for practical transportation the way the original hobo did. The recreational rider is content to travel at 70 mph over the Rockies and through the Great Plains, and cares little if he stops in the wheat fields or lumber camps in between. Lastly, because of the increased financial power had by railroad companies following consolidation, their ability to afford and apply the latest technological security methods have made the rails much less rider friendly. While the original hobo could never compete with infrared and heat-seeking cameras that can now detected illegal riders, the recreational hobo can counter these security methods with expensive, high-tech devices of his own. Using scanners that intercept radio transmissions between conductor and dispatcher, the recreational hobo can find out when and where trains are going, as well as what the rail yard police are up to (Taylor, N.). Also, cell phones, while on the rails, and the internet, while at home, allow recreational riders to communicate and share information much like the original hobo did in the traditional jungle. In fact, with its numerous sites dedicated to hoboing that provide a forum for experiences to be told and advice to be given, the internet now serves as a cyber-jungle for the recreational hobo.

While the economic, industrial, and social changes in landscape proved too much for the original hobo, they were not enough to destroy his culture. With his culture and memory intact, and with a new, vastly different landscape, the second generation of hobo's came into being. The changes in landscape that helped transform hobos from a wondering working class into a sub-culture of adventure travelers are still present today. With railroad companies taking ever more effective steps to eradicate trespassers, and with railroad industry lobbyist pressing for harsher penalties for these trespassers, the hobo's landscape is becoming much less welcoming (Bailey). Whether these changes will produce yet another generation of hobos is unknown. However, given his stubborn persistence, adaptive abilities, and celebrated culture, it is both hoped for and probable.


Source List

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Bailey, Stephen. "Uncle Sam and the Iron Rails," The Fish Rap Live! (10 April 2002)

Bruns, Roger A. Knights of the Road. New York: Methuen, Inc., 1980.

Hertoghs, Jan. "The Drifters Express: 4000 km Through the Hobo Jungle," Humo (2 March 2002)

Howe, Kenneth. "American Nomads," San Francisco Chronicle (14 January 1996)

"ICC Proposed Consolidation Plan." http://www.michiganrailroads.com/RRHX/Miscellaneous/ICCPlan.htm (18 March 2002)

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Mathers, Michael. Riding the Rails. Boston: Gambit, 1973.

Miller, Ronald J. The Demolition of Skid Row. Toronto: Lexington Books, 1982

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Taylor, Paul S. The Monthly Labor Review of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor, Serial No. R.530. (March 1937)

"Union Pacific Online Press Release, 2 March 1999." Fred's Website. http://www.northbankfred.com/uprr.html (8 April 2002)