OM130 - Freighthopping

The history of freighthopping (OM130)

Sometimes John has a strong personal connection to the topic of an episode of the Omnibus and a lot of his anecdotes make their way into the show. John is a little bit of a tail spinner who often has a personal connection because he was there or because he lived in the aftermath of it. He has a strange amount of personal experience with freighthopping, given that they are recording this show in the 21st century which is not the golden age of Hobos.

John did a not inconsiderable amount of freighthopping in his youth at the tail end of the era of freighthopping. People still do it today, but the nature of freight transportation has changed, which changed the nature of freighthopping. You would be hard pressed to still see a box car in the Northwest, let alone an empty box car with its door open. Most freight has been containerized and standardized which means that freighthopping is more dangerous and less a means of transportation for migrant workers.

There is a Gutter Punk community that still travels up and down the coast via freight, but traditionally freighthopping was a viable means of crossing the country or pursuing work in various places. It became a more common lifestyle after the American Civil War because the American West was an ideal environment for freighthopping and civil war veterans were looking for adventure.

The West was opening up, railroads were going across the country, and it seemed only natural to hop on a train and see where it took you. Traveling long-distance across the United States in a fancy rail car was extremely expensive and you would be paying for weeks of travel, which was not affordable to a migrant worker, an agricultural laborer, or a miner who was back East and heard stories about the great wealth that was to be found in Montana or about the Ranching jobs in the West. Freighthopping is as old as railroad travel, or a few hours younger.

Different types rail cars (OM130)

If a box car is closed you are out of luck in terms of getting in there, nustling up in a big bale of hay and getting your little cook-pot going. In the early days, box cars were constructed with 2 or 4 long metal rods underneath that ran the length of the car and supported the floor. A euphemism for riding the rails is ”riding the rods”. Hobos would climb underneath the car, get a piece of wood and put it between the rods (see some pictures here) and lay across the wood, or they would just grab onto the rods and hold on. It was terribly dangerous, but it was a method of riding the rails in early times. Today we call that just flying economy.

There are lot of different kinds of freight cars, but fewer now that containerization has become so specialized. If you are looking to move almost any kind of freight today, you buy a container or a portion of a container and you can fill it with whatever, but the container remains a unit. Before that there were wooden crates and barrels and there were guys who had to unload the car, put the boxes into a net, lift the net up into the hold of the ship, stack the boxes at the other end of it.

The cost of moving freight became greatly reduced and it is now in most cases cheaper to have something made in China and shipped to wherever little town you live in the United States than to just make that thing in your own town. This thing that you could have made yourself was made of material that was shipped to China, then manufactured and shipped back to you. We lost a lot of jobs, but the oil companies continued to make money, which is how it usually works.

Coal cars are hopper cars: You pour stuff in the top and they open at the bottom. A lot of them are open air and coal trains create a tremendous amount of pollution in the form of coal dust. There are videos online of coal trains at speed that are leaving behind them a cloud of black coal dust being blown out of the tops of these cars. Tarps seem like a good solution. Hopper cars can also hold grain that will also shed a bunch of husk. A lot of them are covered to keep the grain from getting wet. You would not generally hop into the hopper of a hopper car, because it is very hard to get out if it is empty. Hopping into the grain car to sit and ride on top of the grain is putting an extra onus on yourself.

Different types of Hobos (OM130)

Depending on jurisdiction, freight hopping was regarded either as a benign nuisance or in other places as a serious crime. Railroads employed cops called bulls specifically to keep Hobos off their trains, because Hobos are not Hobos because they are good honest citizens who are going to church every Sunday, but they are itinerant.

There are 3 terms of art for this culture:
1. Hobo: Migrant worker, looking for a job everywhere he goes, traveling from place to place because the work has dried up where he was and he has a sense that there is work somewhere else. Agricultural work and other forms of work used to be very seasonal and it was the time before there was a large body of labor from Mexico or other places. Fruit still needed to be picked and Hoboism was a major feature. A Hobo would often have relationships with foremen across the country who would recognize him and be happy to see him when he comes back.
2. Tramp: Lesser class, someone traveling not necessarily looking for work, but who will work when he has to because he is down on his last buck. They show up at the back door of your restaurant and offer to wash some dishes for food, and they are doing menial unskilled labor.
3. Bum: A word that John used to refer to any panhandler, or to athletes on the other team. A bum doesn’t really want to travel or work, but they end up getting chased out of places.

Ken and John talk about somebody who did a Hobo-themed wedding and was getting criticized for glamorizing poverty.

Hobo code (OM130)

A lot of Hobo culture is oriented toward making the world safe for other Hobos. In his book The Areas of My Expertise John Hodgman goes into a very comical explication of Hobo signs. He is hilarious at fictionalizing facts and a lot of hipsters now think that there are all these Hobo signs that don’t really exist. Hobo signs were a way for Hobos to communicate to one another. It was part of a culture that if a Hobo were to burn bridges in certain places, he will also burning that bridge for other Hobos. It is easy as an itinerant to steal this lady’s pie off of a window sill because you are never going to be here again, but within Hobo culture that is a crime against all Hobos.

There was a pretty sophisticated unwritten code of Hobo culture that eventually became widely known. There was a group of Hobos who met in 1889, way before the Depression, at a national Hobo convention in St Louis and there was already an organized sense of a Hobo world.

Here are some of the codes voted upon as a concrete set of laws by the nationwide Hobo body:

1. Decide your own life! Don’t let another person run or rule you!
2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
3. Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other Hobos.
4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again. They are trying to establish that they are a member of society. They might be an underclass, but they are providing a valuable service.
11. When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member. When the railroad needs any help, don’t alienate the railroad
13. Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society. The word ”molest” had much more general connotations, but for this to be an admonition directed at all Hobos, it is clear that they are regarded by polite society as the font of men who would molest children who were a lot more unsupervised at the time. Runaway children were a major component of the Hobo world and a lot of kids were riding the rails. If you were an orphan or things didn’t work out in your little neck of the woods, kids could just as easily run out and jump on a train.
14. Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.

A study of 1909 estimated that there were between 500.000-700.000 tramps raiding the rails in the United States before World War I (The Population at that time was 90 million and Hobos were 0.7% of the population, John said 2%).

Etymology (OM130)

The name Hobo is a Northwest coinage. No-one can quite locate the etymology, but it might be short for Homeward Bound or derived from ”Ho boy!” or from French ”Ho Beau!” It first appeared in the West and the Northwest until it first became synonymous with traveling worker in California, a West Coast Punk Rock thing. In the Southern United States people hop freights much more casually as a way of going from town to town because the trains there go never more than 20 mph (30 km/h).

The reason you would ever hop onto a moving train is traditionally that the railroad bulls were situated in yards or turnouts where trains would come to a stop, but once the train is moving the bull can’t really do anything about it. Hobos would hide in the bushes in an area where they knew trains had to slow down and they would wait for a train that was going slow enough to run up alongside, throw their bag in and hop on. Getting on or off a moving train is extremely dangerous in almost every case.

John’s own history of riding trains (OM130)

see also AR60

In John’s own history of riding trains he was extremely conscious of not getting his legs chopped off because you can get under the wheels and be cut in half. John had set a rule for himself to never get on or off a train that was moving at all, and for the most part he was able to travel all across the country by waiting until a train came to a stop. He also made it a policy never to get on a train when he was drunk. Over the years he ended up violating all of these rules and the reasons he stopped riding trains was not just because he decided he wanted to take more regular baths, but he violated his own code enough that he realized he had become unsafe and that was not how he wanted to die.

John hopped his first train in 1986. There were still box cars and there were old Hobos left over from an earlier time. He was super-excited to be pioneering this old-fashioned thing, he thought the Hobos were all gone, and thought he would bring back this whole forgotten world. It is an amazing experience to jump on an open train, have that train get up to speed and go across the country. Many things about it are incomparable and railroad tracks go where the roads don’t. In Northern Montana there are long stretches where the train is just by itself out there in the open country with no roads or anything as far as the eyes can see.

When standing in a box car looking out you get a panoramic view of the world unlike the one you would get from a car, it is much more akin to be on a motorcycle where there is no frame around your vision of the world as it passes. Railroads tend to go through abandoned towns and next to old mines and a lot of the American West was built around railroads. After the rise of air travel and the Interstate Highway, those places were left in situ but the train still takes you to the most incredible places. One time John went past a tire dump that stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction and he was in an environment of hills and valleys of all just tires. In some areas they were on fire by lightning or spontaneous combustion and there was smoke coming out of places. It was the most dystopian place he has ever seen, but he has never seen a photograph of it.

You are also getting the wind in your hair. The most beautiful thing John ever saw was when he woke up in a box car crossing the Rocky Mountains and the train had slowed down and was just inching around. John was looking down into a valley late at night or early in the morning, the moon was out and there was a little village with sparkling lights, there was mist and fog in the air and it felt like John was on a train set. Waking up out of a sleep he was in a dream state anyway. It is still in John’s mind as the most beautiful Christmas vignette, a diorama edged into the front of his brain.

Meeting other Hobs (OM130)

As John got into the Middle West he discovered that there were other Hobos who were older and sketchier men than he had ever met before. The first time John got on a train and there was someone there, he was like ”Hello Mr. Hobo!” and the guy was 65 years old and had knuckles that looked like tinker toys. He replied ”Hello young doughy boy! Your super-blond mustache seems to just be coming in, let me show you the ways of the world!” They were stuck on a train car together for hours and hours because this train was going too fast to do anything. More than once John got into a situation where he felt in trouble and was trapped in an environment with another person who felt predatory.

John was only 17, but he was 6’3” (190 cm) and 250 pounds (115 kg) and in many of those situations where he had gone over his head he presented just enough of a formidable potential adversary that no-one ever actually pounced. John was large and dumb and did not perceive as much danger as he was in. A couple of times in his 30s he woke up in a cold sweat, realizing he had been two seconds away from being jumped by a gang of old men, but he had this dumb confidence of ”Hey fellows! I’ve got a can of beans that I can add to your stone soup!” and they were like ”Wow!” Maybe he presented as a cop or just as trouble, he looked like somebody who was maybe too good to be true.

Although John looked and acted very big and confident, he was a completely passive person and if one of those Hobos would have jumped on him, he doesn’t know what he would have done, and he cannot put himself back into his 17 year old mindset to know how much he would have fought. John never had to get into a fight, but he was grabbed by some bulls in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, and in Billings, Montana and both times the bull said to the effect ”What the hell are you doing? You are a child and you are playing a dangerous game, you do not want to be with these people!” The bull had been pulling a bunch of people out of a jungle Hobo encampment and he was roughing other people up and had a line of 6-7 guys in their 50s and 60s sitting on a railroad tie in handcuffs. He pulled John off, took the handcuffs off him and said "Run!” John escaped an awful lot of what should have been his inglorious end.

Times changed (OM130)

Times have changed even while John was doing freighthopping. Containerization was happening during the late 1980s / early 1990s. Hopper cars had a little platform at each end that was protected from the rain and a lot of them had a metal sheer wall that had a circle cut into it that was the size of a man. You could sit on those platforms, lay your sleeping bag out, and crawl into the hole where you were not visible to the outside world. It was a little compartment that was a great place to ride.

This was also a time where there were cabooses on trains with break-men stationed in them. They were sitting in the back of a caboose before rail-yards and switches were all automated, jumping out changing switches. The break-man was watching the length of the train from behind and was radioing to the engineer that everything was kosher. Part of their job was to keep Hobos out of the train, but one time John was invited into the caboose because the guy wanted somebody to chat. John has this bias of being invited into the caboose, but from this guy’s perspective he might be ”Look at this kid, his mustache is so blond! Hey kid, get in here!” John was thinking that they were nice to all Hobos.

They would rat on Hobos, but once a train was in motion they were not going to stop to pull Hobos off. At a certain point the idea of violence in American culture started to change as well. In 1890 when the Hobo code was first put into effect, they would just throw you off a bridge when they found you on a moving train and no-one would weep for you, but by the 1980s an employee of Burlington Northern Railroad was not empowered to throw you off a moving train.

Over time the railroads have made it much more difficult to ride various type of cars. They took away the end platforms of the hopper cars and now it is just open to the tracks on either end and there is no safe place anymore. Box cars are no longer the major form of a train, and although you still see them, they are fairly rare. Containers are all sealed with actual lead seals and you would have to break the seal and the lock, at which point you would be guilty of breaking and entering. If you could find a train that had box cars full of stuff, there would generally also be empty box cars because part of moving trains around is that trains are always shuttling a combination of empty and full cars. Now the railroads have made it impossible to really effectively jump a train. Northwest Punk Rock Hobos are riding in very unsafe conditions.

John’s trip to Chicago (OM130)

The first time John got on a multi-day train was in the yard in Portland. He got pulled off by a bull who said ”You can’t ride trains in my yard” and John discouragedly walked along through the yard, dragging his bindle behind him in the dirt. He literally had a bag that his dad got him at the Smithsonian Institution Air and Space Museum when it opened in 1977. He later lost that bag on the rails.

It was 2am and John met a brake-man coming the other way in the dark with his lantern, saying ”What are you doing, kid? Hopping trains?” - ”Yeah!” - ”Where are you trying to go?” - ”Chicago!” John had never been to Chicago in his life, but he wanted to learn the blues and get out of this little bullshit town. The brake-man took John into the yard office where all the guys were, the switching guys, the engineers, and the brake-men, and they all had a good laugh that John was on his way to Chicago.

John can still picture the main guy because he looked like the lead singer in Sparks with a little black mustache and slicked-back black hair. He asked John if he had a map, a canteen, water, food, or a flashlight, but John didn’t have anything besides his Air and Space Museum backpack with two changes of underwear. He hadn’t even bought a Snickers bar, but he was just a dumb kid who didn’t know how big America was. Chicago was just right over there!

The guy gave John a big jug of water, some cake wrapped up in napkins, they were having a birthday party for somebody, a lantern that John still has and he told John what train to get on. They walked him out and put him on the train and they thought it was hilarious. It was again the blond mustache scenario where John had no idea that not everyone was getting this deluxe treatment from the locals.

John got on that train, he immediately ate all the cake and drank all the water in the first 40 minutes and he went to sleep. As he woke up the next morning he thought he must be in Chicago, but he was in Spokane and had three more days to go on that train. Now John had to put the Hobo life behind him, because it is incompatible with podcasting.

Nostalgia about Hoboism, John’s grandfather (OM130)

It is a little sad that this romantic life is gone. Migrant labor moves about in a lot of different ways and while there is some small component of migrant labor that still moves short distances by jumping trains, the glory days of travel by rail are in our past. There is a lot less sense that you can walk out into the world, grab ahold of the wings of a star, or whatever people did in those Broadway musicals, and step onto a train or a boat and go to a land undiscovered where no-one could find you again.

During the depression in the 1930s Hobo culture really exploded because all these people were out of work, nothing was keeping them where they were and they could all just go to California. John’s grandfather, his mother's father, jumped on a train in Ohio and headed to California, trying to find work during the Canary Row era. Freighthopping became a much more mainstream thing.

In the 1950s there was a nostalgia among folk musicians and artists like Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Jack Kerouac, a generation of Americans who romanticized the Hobo culture of the 1930s, and in the 1970s there was a group of Hobo hipster rider types who romanticized the Hobos of the 1950s. John wasn’t as versed in all of that in the mid 1980s, but he had a sense of it. In the way Snoopy was wearing a Foreign Legion hat, John had a sense of what a Hobo looked and felt like and he had a sense of the wisdom of the road, but it was a shadow of a shadow of a shadow.

At the time John didn’t even know that his grandfather had done it, but he wanted that connection to an America that even then didn’t exist. He had no way of anticipating how much that America would be gone during his own lifetime. After the rise of the automobile people wanted to discover America Simon and Garfunkel style in a Volkswagen Bus and there was no longer just one transportation backbone of America.

All you have to do is jump on one train to realize how freaking scary and dangerous it is. Now when John goes down to a rail-yard, a train pulls in and he watches a locomotive and a freight train lumber by, it is horrifying and he cannot remember the emotional world he was living in where felt excited and at home on them, just hoisting himself up on one of those and letting it take him to where it is going.

Calling the rail-yard (OM130)

It is possible to find out where a train is going because the engine number is connected to an itinerary and you can just call the freight yard and make up a story. They surely saw through the ruse because Hobos do it a lot. This was at a time when you had to put a dime in a phone and look up the yard office in the phone book that was there, and John often got engine numbers and departure times. Early on John would just get onto whichever train seemed to be pointed in the direction he was going and often enough that train would hit a switch and turn South while John was headed East. It is a surrender of control and there are just not that many opportunities in life now, even for young people, to be that unmonitored.

Conclusion (OM130)

Ken can’t be too nostalgic about what John has described as dangerous and horrifying. He can be a sad dad about a lot of things, but not the fact that his kids will never know the joy of hopping a box car. Think about what John’s parents were going through! They only heard from him once a month when he was feeding coins into a phone booth at $3 a minute. All that doesn’t exist in the same way anymore and it didn’t even exist really in 1986! Ken is just fine with his kids having a hobby where they have a zero percent chance of being cut in half.

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