the rail-riding hobos
by jason george from the des moines register
Britt, Ia. - Nomads from across the country began rolling into Britt on Friday for this weekend's 100th National Hobo Convention.
The annual event celebrates one town's fascination with the vagabonds who ride the nation's rails.
But a retired police officer 1,500 miles away is looking past the story-telling, carnival rides, mulligan stew, and the crowning of hobo royalty that will highlight the weekend.
Bob Grandinetti of Spokane, Wash., says some of Britt's weekend visitors might not be ideal guests.
The murder of a 12-year-old girl in Spokane more than a decade ago began Grandinetti's obsession with a somewhat mythical group called the Freight Train Riders Association.
Grandinetti was assigned to the murder case. He blamed the shadowy train-jumpers who crisscross the country, never staying long in one place.
After his retirement, the unsolved crime became Grandinetti's passion. He said informants with ties to the gang have helped him track members' whereabouts.
"I spent 15 to 20 years following these transients," he said. And he says he's tracked the Freight Train Riders Association to Britt for this year's convention.
"They come to Britt every year," Grandinetti said. "And they always run one of their people for king or queen."
Organizers expect 15,000 people in Britt by tonight. Many will have names such as Frisco Jack, Luther the Jet, Liberty Justice and Frog.
Most of the visitors are expected to arrive by conventional means, although a large group of transients will arrive in boxcars and camp in the Hobo Jungle, a two-block area of town set aside for conventioneers.
Although some people doubt the existence of an organized hobo fraternity, railroad and government officials say Grandinetti's information on hobo crime is accurate and reliable.
Britt Police Chief Blake Dietrich remembers being told to look for members of the group two or three years ago. None was spotted. This year, Dietrich and the two other Britt police officers will be getting a helping hand from Forest City police and the Hancock and Kossuth county sheriff's departments.
"Starting Monday, we've had the extra officers out," he said.
Festival organizers say they try to focus on the history of legendary hobos who rode the rails in the 1920s. They shy from advocating the lifestyle or endorsing the hobos' favored means of transportation.
About 80 registered rail-riders and an unknown number of unregistered riders will be in Britt, population 2,200, until Monday. They'll leave by the same method they arrived.
"We do not recommend (train-hopping) as a mode of transportation," said Lisa Christianson, executive director of the Britt Chamber of Commerce.
Tom White of the Association of American Railroads says Britt might be better off looking for an alternative to the popular convention, which has single-handedly put the Hancock County town on the map.
"It's the sort of thing that you don't want to encourage. By having an event like this it seems to be glamorizing something illegal," he said.
White, whose organization represents all the major freight companies and Amtrak, said he has heard of the Freight Train Riders Association and how "they've apparently been tied to some serious crimes," but he isn't sure if it exists.
Whether the gang is real or urban legend, there is no debate that crimes are committed by some who proclaim to be hobos, he said.
Train-hopping is against the law, said Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. "And hobos are professional trespassers."
Flatau added that Iowa has strong laws against trespassing on railroad property, being the only state to enact legislation suggested by the federal government in 1997.
Union Pacific Railroad officials say tough laws in Iowa are good news. Spokesman Mark Davis said the company runs more than 70 trains on 1,700 miles of track in the state.