The story of 250,000 teenagers on the road in the Great Depression is one of the vital sagas of America in the 1930s. These archives derive from 3,000 letters written by men and women who rode the rails between 1929 and 1941; follow-up questionnaires and interviews complete a rare first-hand account of Americans living through one of this nation’s bleakest eras.


"A terrible, heinous time in American history."


Dorothy Ladoceour
Our family lived in Jones County, Mississippi during the depression.
Sometime in the late 1930s my uncle who was about 17 or 18 years of age and two or three of his buddies decided to go to Arkansas and pick cotton to earn a few dollars. The railroad track ran fairly close to the family farm and at one place the train had to travel uphill. When the train went up the hill it would be moving much slower than at other points along the way, so the boys walked to the uphill location, probably carrying a change of clothes in a sack slung over their shoulders, where there chances of hopping on board were easier.

They got on, went to Arkansas, picked cotton, saved every penny, then hopped another boxcar to return home. They had worked about a month and were happy with the few dollars they had earned doing back-breaking work.

Their happiness was short lived however because my uncle became very ill the first day out. By this time it was early October and nights were cold so the boys found a way to get inside one of the boxcars where they took turns holding my uncle’s head in their laps as they sat on the floor.

As they were nearing a town (probably Memphis,) they decided they would have to get off the train and take my uncle to a doctor. This they did and it ended up costing my uncle all the money he had made to pay the doctor. The other boys used their money to buy medicine and food a pay for two nights lodging as my uncle's condition did not improve for a couple of days.

Thus it was that the boys who left home with high hopes of earning a little money came home almost penniless.

Arkansas sharecroppers going home from cotton fields near Bytheville, Arkansas Photo: Dorothea Lange
Arkansas sharecroppers going home from cotton fields near Bytheville   Photo: Dorothea Lange


Edgar Mitchell

I first left my home in Coffeyville, Kansas in the early 1930's. I was approximately 18 years old and I remember Franklin Roosevelt was president at the time. I went down to the railroad yards and climbed aboard a freight train to see more of our country and what it was like.

I ended up in Houston, Texas where the police picked me up and put me in jail overnight.

After being released the next morning, I continued on my travels as a Knight of the Open Road. I traveled for the greater part of the next two years, throughout the United States.

I soon adapted myself to the life of the open road and even to the different kinds of languages spoken in our land. Hobo jungles were favorite places for the Knights of the Road to congregate, cook, clean-up and often times to share your food with others. My travels took me from coast to coast, mostly by rail, with not too much hitching.

I remember one time I crossed the entire United States in 11 days, all by rail. I rode the rails all over the West, through all the Western States, and enjoyed the beautiful scenery firsthand. I traveled with a buddy so we could look in on what was going on.

I was right in the middle of the Bonus March on Washington DC. I remember seeing one train with hundreds of Bonus Marchers riding on top of it.

Times were tough, the Great Depression was on, no work to be found. Some were lucky to get work for room and board, some for one dollar a day. I usually had a buck or two on me, that I got from doing odd jobs or from people whose back doors I would knock on for a handout. The Depression years were an ugly scene to witness, and best forgotten.

One time I was on a Santa Fe freight train in route to California and at the Colorado River crossing had to run and hide from the railroad bulls. I escaped by hanging on the side of a cattle car headed for Needles. If you got to Needles you had it made, and no way could you be turned back.

 A diesel freight train going around a curve on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad between Needles and Barstow Photo: Jack Delano
 A diesel freight train going around a curve on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad between Needles and Barstow Photo: Jack Delano

I remember meeting a woman in Barstow who gave me a pair of new overalls. That made me feel like a king.

I remember the time I was locked up in a boxcar. The trainmen sealed the door, closing it before I got completely awake. I hollered and yelled, pounding my fists on the car door. They finally heard me and reopened the door.

While I was knight of the road, I dug fresh potatoes in Montana for a dollar a day including my room and board. In Washington, I stayed three days with some Indians who had set-up camp to do their salmon fishing. In Reno, Nevada, I went inside the casinos to get a good look at the gambling that went on inside. I remember a special freight train during the Depression years that was named the Ma Ferguson, after the Governor of Texas.

Another close call I remember was in San Jose, California. I was riding behind a engine and water tank when I decided I wanted to get off the train. When my feet first touched the ground, I started to somersault, rolling over and over before I came to a complete stop. The trainmen came running over to me to inspect me. I was covered with blood, and afraid I would be crippled for life. Luckily, the hand of God was with me that day.


Egon Tym

Cheyenne, WYO: “We got 30 days jail. They fed us bread and beans. Henry didn’t like beans, so I ate his beans and he ate my bread.”

We got as far as Kansas and stopped at a bakery to ask for some stale donuts. The man asked us if we would like to work for it and we said yes. He took us down to his cellar. It was a mess as there had been a flood. When we finished cleaning up the water four hours later, he gave us a bunch of donuts and thanked us. We thought we would get paid, but all we got was the donuts.



Eric Schmidt

I was 18 between my first and second year of college and I spent the summer of 1934 on the road to see what was happening. The freight trains were lined with passengers in their quest for work that would support a family.

I saved a man from going under the wheels when his bindle swung and jerked his hands off the boxcar step. Only to have him rob me while we slept in a boxcar that night..!



Frank Kluss

I was riding in the reefer (ice compartment of a refrigerated fruit car) when we arrived in Lima, Ohio and because of the bad reputation of Lima Slim, the RR bull, I was afraid to get off.

I heard the icing operation getting closer and closer until they were filling the car next to mine and I knew I was next. After a long silence I heard them filling the car past me. They did not ice my car..

When daylight came I looked to see why they did not ice my car and I saw that it contained potatoes that did not need ice. But I was scared anyway.



Fred Lopez

“When the train reached the border between California and Arizona, lo and behold, there were men actually shooting at the people riding the rails, insisting they go back where they came from. This was an unbearable and frightening experience.

Please don’t make it sound like it was a carefree, joyous time because it wasn’t. It was a terrible, heinous time in American history.
Oklahoma drought refugees camping by the roadside at the California - Arizona border. Photo: Dorothea Lange
Oklahoma drought refugees camping by the roadside at the California - Arizona border. Photo: Dorothea Lange

Hard Traveling : Transients in the Great Depression


George Lantz

I lit out on a freight for Memphis TN.

That was where I had my first experience with Federal Transient Bureaus. They took my name on a slip of paper and told me to sit down. After I had waited about two hours, they assigned me to a case worker. He pulled out a big blue card and asked me more questions about my parents name, other members of my family, my height, weight, color of eyes, occupation, age and education.

I gave them a fictitious name and the wrong street address in Evansville. I had been told that if I said I would only stay three days in Memphis I wouldn’t have to work so I told them that.

They gave me meal tickets for three days and assigned me to a room.

I overstayed my three days and was sent back to the bureau for disease inspection, of the type given in the army.

Then I was assigned to wash dishes in a restaurant, the pay being $1.15 a week plus meal tickets and a “flop”.

I was still working the transient camps as I went on into Arizona, finally arriving at Tucson, where the transient camp is run just like an army camp surrounded by a high, barbed wire fence and patrolled by men with guns.

Transients have to sign up to stay two weeks and are provided with army cots, two blankets, a tick that can be stuffed with hay for mattress, a hat, a khaki jumper, overall pants, good shoes, two blue shirts, a change of underwear and a pair of new socks a week.

The men, about 400 of them, sleep in a barracks. The food is great – meat, fresh vegetables, coffee or milk and cereal and you can eat as much as you want.

Everybody has to work, however, and the discipline is strict.

I slipped out of camp before my two weeks were up by climbing over the fence when the guard wasn’t looking and was on my way again heading for California by way of Yuma Arizona.

As the tank car carrying several of us pulled into the suburbs of Los Angeles, a cop got on, herded us all off and marched us to the Jefferson Heights Jail.

I was kept in the bull pen, only they call it a “tank” all night. A bunch of drunks kept me awake.

Next morning they took 10 of us before a judge. We were charged with stealing rides. One fellow pleaded not guilty. The judge gave him 30 days

That gave us a cue, so the rest of us pleaded guilty.

“You’re a dirty looking bunch of bums,” the judge said. “I’ll give you two days in the cooler to wash and rest up."

“Judge, it will take me two weeks to clean all the crumbs (lice) off me if I stay in there two days,” one of the bums complained.

The judge gave him 60 days.

There’s a place on Howard Street in San Francisco in the Tenderloin, known as Skid Row to the bums, where could can get a hamburger steak, mashed potatoes, a vegetable, soup, a drink, four pieces of bread and butter, for a dime, so we ate pretty well.

I worked on a CWA project as a skilled laborer for $4,25 a day. You’re supposed to be a native to get this work, so I made up a tale about being an orphan. Told them my parents were killed in San Francisco earthquake. As I wasn’t born until 1916 and the earthquake was in 1906 that was a pretty tall yarn, but they didn’t question it.

Scene on Skid Row, Howard Street, San Francisco, California  Photo: Dorethea Lange
Scene on "Skid Row," Howard Street, San Francisco, California  Photo: Dorethea Lange


George Nelles

High school grads 1934

George, Mac and John Rebel

“Sometimes we could not find an open boxcar so we slept on top of the boxcar. We would lay on the crosswalk and wrap our arms under the boards and sleep for hours. If our arms came out while we were asleep there was a great danger that we would roll over the side of the train going 50 mph.”

“Sometimes we would sleep in the ice compartment of a reefer when ice was not needed but the hatch door was left open for ventilation for onions or whatever. We would open one of the two hatch doors on the car, we would let ourselves down about 9 or 10 feet into a compartment about 4 foot wide and 10 foot deep, there were steel bar on the floor that would let the ice water drain if there was ice in there instead of us three.

After a while we could sleep on those sharp bars as if we were home. Again the same danger except even more so, we would put the long lock handle, about 1 ½ inch x 24 inch down inside the compartment so no one could lock us down there to starve to death. It had happened more than once. The funniest thing about sleeping there was it was quite difficult to get out. One of us would hold another on the shoulders to get the door open. Then it was necessary to jump to the top about 10ft, scramble out with your feet sliding on the slippery metal walls.

Icing refrigerator cars at San Bernardino, California Photo: Jack Delano
Icing refrigerator cars at San Bernardino, California Photo: Jack Delano

How we sometimes got a drink if we were riding on top a boxcar across the desert and thought we would die of thirst: We would climb down the ladder on the side of a refrigerator car to the very bottom step just above the wheels and track, going fifty to sixty bumpy miles an hour. We would stretch out and reach out with one hand while holding on the step with the other hand and cup our palm under the ice drain hole of the refrigerator car. Now that was dangerous!

Government, state or local authorities would have camps at every other division point, which are about 400 miles apart roughly one-half the distance we traveled each day, if we were lucky. You could sign up at about 4, take a shower, eat at 5 and be assigned a bed for the night. In the morning you were supposed to go on a work detail for the day.

We didn’t have trouble with the bulls until we got to El Paso, Texas.

We went to the railroad yard to leave on the Southern Pacific RR. There were about 100 bums in a bunch waiting for the train to pull out.

A RR detective stood between them and the train with his pistol aimed at us. We hung back as the train pulled out; about 190 men started running toward it but about 10 of us hung back one block.

The train came within 100 yards of us and the ten of us started to run for it. The bull yelled for us to stop but if he came at us the other 190 would get on the train so he stood still and started shooting at us.

Well the train was moving pretty fast by now and Rebel and I got on it. Mac was pretty slow so I looked back to see the bull shooting at him. He jumped for the step on the side of the boxcar but his foot and leg went through when he missed the step and he fell.

By now he is out of sight. Rebel and I went to the next division about 400 miles down the track to wait and think. We did not know if he was alive or dead, shot or went under the wheels.

We slept the night, waited all day, walked to a lake that was near by, went swimming, bought a loaf of bread and some lunch ham and returned to the RR yard. Late that evening a freight came in with one man on it, riding on top. It was Mac.

Wild Boys of the Road


Glenand Spencer

retired psychologist

rode rails from 15 to 18

1933 to 1937

“Young tramps,”that’s what they called us until Hollywood made a C film, Wild Boys of the Road.

My travel was mainly in the South and West, and although he didn’t make a practice of beating up kids, I probably have the distinction of being the only 14 year old to be pistol-whipped by the infamous Texas Pacific Railroad bull, Texas Slim

I can tell you about the hobo jungle seminars at which we were tutored by experts on how to throw limbs out of joint, the better to soften the hearts of the nurturing-mother types when begging for food.

The "cotton farm" forced labor scene: In the South {from Mississippi-Georgia-Alabama area to Texas,) whenever free farm labor was needed by local officials on their farms (usually owned by the county sheriff,) arrangements were made with railroad bulls to supply it.

Trains were allowed to fill up with hobos and then stopped at some prearranged point outside the town. The sheriff's men would help the railroad men round up the hobos; the able-bodied men were then arrested, charged with vagrancy or some violation of railroad law, and sentenced to a "work furlough” - usually 30 to 60 days on what we called the cotton farm. (Depending on the location and season, the crop may have been peanuts or sugar cane but it was always referred to as the cotton farm.)

I was caught in two such round ups but, like the too-small fish, I was discarded as unsuited to their needs. I never saw a boy as young as myself or any woman taken in.

Texas Slim and Step-and Step-and-a-Half: Two famous railroad bulls on the Texas and Pacific line between Texarkana and El Paso. Both very mean, and for one reason or another hated all bums.. Step-and-a-Half lost his left leg below the knee when he fell under a train chasing hoboes; nobody knew what Texas Slim’s problem was. Both were brutal and malicious.

Texas Slim rode the trains. His favorite activities were shaking down freights several miles out of town, leaving everyone to walk back or throwing hobos off moving trains. Step and a Half worked the freight yards of Dallas and Fort Worth on foot, and was known for the pleasure he took in pistol whipping hobos.

Ideally, a hobo jungle was located near the town (to make begging convenient) and as close to the freight yards as possible. A source of natural {or free and available) water was essential for both cooking and occasional bathing and washing of clothes. A secluded, wooded area was ideal.

Some Great Depression hobo jungles were more or less permanent; implements for gathering wood, washing clothing, and cooking were left there as jungle property. Relatively permanent structures of wood, heavy cardboard and other materials were maintained by whoever was there; they belonged to anyone who found them vacant or not in use. Group cooking and eating was common; each person contributed whatever he could beg or buy.

The elite of the hobo jungle were the blinds riders. (A "blind" is the small space between the ends of two passenger or mail/express cars; exposed to the weather and very dangerous.) The rider stands between the cars, one foot on a hand hold of one car, and one on the other, and using the single ladder rung on each car as a hand-hold. If a rider got wet or cold or sleepy on the blind, he usually went under the wheels. Defying and surviving the danger of it all was a part of the game and the source of his jungle macho status. The ordinary jungle hobo was fascinated by their experience and they became great story tellers. If there was a "king of the road," he was it. Mostly they were loners.

A westbound local freight train passing on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad between Winslow and Seligman, Arizona  Photo: Jack Delano
Westbound train passing on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad between Winslow and Seligman, Arizona  Photo Jack Delano

As a matter of pride, blinders rode only the status trains such as the express mails or the red-ball passenger trains (like the Wabash Cannonball or the Cotton Belt Blue Streak). Most blinders were men in late adolescence and young manhood.

As they used to say of fighter pilots: there were old blinders, and bold blinders, but no old, bold blinders; most of them quit or died young.

Although the "Okies" had not yet began pouring into California, the state was hostile to hobos, especially the Los Angeles area. The Lincoln Heights jail in LA was famous for its abusive treatment. We heard of sexual abuse of young boys by both jail inmates and jail personnel.

I rode the Texas & Pacific, Cotton Belt, Denver & Rio Grande Western (the old "Dirty, Ragged and Greasy") and the Missouri, Union, and Southern Pacific lines. My most memorable rides were on the UP "big boys." These were the largest locomotives ever manufactured-front cab, articulated engines specially designed for hauling long trains up long western grades. Each engine had sixteen ninety-six inch drivers and delivered over a million horses to the rails.

The double-headers out of the Cheyenne yards on the Sherman grade was the most impressive show of power I have ever known; at the crest of the grade, a double-header would make the earth tremble for a mile on either side of the tracks. (I have since learned that when a big boy double-header made the last scheduled run up the Sherman grade, train buffs from all over the world assembled at the crest to see and hear and feel the farewell performance of a truly great train.)

My impression was that hobos quickly recognize a novice at the trade, and offered survival seminars and demonstra-tions - how to catch a boxcar (always jump for the front ladder; if you go for the rear ladder and miss, you go between the cars and under the wheels), the safe way to sleep standing up when riding tankers, how to tie oneself to the catwalks when riding the tops, securing the ice hatch doors on reefers (so you can’t get locked in), judging when a train is being made up and when it's ready to go, and so on.

Because of my age and small size, I never had to learn how to simulate deformities in order to beg successfully. I either hit on middle aged mother types for food or begged for postage stamps which in those days could be spent for food.

I was occasionally picked up by police who assumed I was a runaway that someone wanted; when it turned out that no one did, they always released me rather than take care of me.

Older hobos would warn us occasionally about the dangers of sexual assault, but no one ever tried to molest me. In part, I think, this was because young bums like me usually preferred to travel in small groups of three or four for mutual protection and support.

As a professional psychologist, I have been able to use my Great Depression hobo jungle experiences as illustrating the power of early experience to shape the tastes and personality of the adult.

The hobo jungle instills a certain accepting, Machiavellian attitude toward mankind. The attitude is something like, people may be "no damn good" but the issue of good or bad is moot; people are all there is for us. So we did not judge others-thieves, whores, murderers-we accepted them all for what they were, because there wasn't anything else.

We stopped being choosy about people, and settled for being careful, knowing that when the chips were down, although everyone is capable of everything, you still can't live without them. I'm still that way. And only those who have "been there" can have the emotions aroused by lonely train whistles in the night, the sound and feel of pounding wheels, and an everlasting love of the steam locomotive - I still haven't persuaded myself that the diesel is here to stay!
Chicago, Illinois: Chicago and Northwestern Streamliner diesel electric train operated jointly with Union Pacific Railroad. Photo: Jack Delano
Chicago, Illinois: Chicago and Northwestern Streamliner diesel electric train operated jointly with Union Pacific Railroad. Photo: Jack Delano


Guitar Whitey

13, 1934

12, played guitar

"Always keep your boots on, sleeping is a menace because you are off guard."

"I went on to fruit tramp. I came home with $100"

The freight train guy is more independent, but I've done some hitchhiking.

Kids would travel in two's, very seldom three. Packs? No, never. I can't imagine unless it was a whole band of brothers, where you found more than two or three together.

Only girls I saw were part of family... mother, father, children... straw suitcases

In the 30s, if you could get a job, you could whip Depression. But if you couldn't, you were forced to ride the trains or got into petty crime, panhandling on the streets, that kind of thing, or else join the army for $30 or the CCC for $30 or work the fruit tramp part of the year...

"It would be very similar to what the young black people are experiencing today. They're in a terrible situation. I know it ain't their fault. They didn't ask for it. I know some of them ain't doing a whole lot to help it either but they're in the same position as those kids were then.

"They're angry because they were born into something that's not their fault. The fact that I have white skin and blue eyes puts me in a far better position in the world today than if I had dark skin and brown eyes. It's totally an accident of birth. Nothing I did myself."

The difference between a young guy, say 18-year old that had a job and a young guy 18 that was on the bum with an old blue suit, shoes with holes in them and winter coming on... terrible contrast. The lucky guy would like to help the other but how?

I suppose there was that resentment ... had to be... you know the rich kid vs the poor kid on the block. There's always some envy there but there was no organized movement like you have today. You know every time you turn around you are running into MADD and Women's Lib and Earth First and Save the Whales and Go to Church and a million things and everyone's got a parade and a banner. There was none of that.

You were just one of the hundreds of thousands of people milling around the country and hoping to find something without a whole lot of reason to hope.

Then it all broke at once. Everything broke. Pearl Harbor was the signal. The whole picture changed overnight. From the hordes of people going around the country trying to make $1 a day working dawn to dusk...

All of a sudden you had shipyards crying for help, services taking anybody they could possibly get in there. Overnight, a totally different situation.

Bethlehem Fairfield shipyards, near Baltimore, Maryland. Construction of a Liberty ship. On the twenty-fourth day the ship is ready for launching.
Bethlehem Fairfield shipyards, near Baltimore, Maryland. Construction of a Liberty ship. On the twenty-fourth day the ship is ready for launching.

Harassed by railroad cops and kangaroo courts


Guy Thomas

In 1937, I was a resident of the Mc Cune Home for Boys, a children's institution near Independence, Mo. I was placed there, the result of parental abandonment, at age five and remained until age seventeen.

There appeared to be a great need at that time for the home to reduce their costs by releasing children past the age of seventeen into the free to survive as best they could. It was a cruel, but perhaps a necessary decision by the custodians of the boys home. In my manuscript "Rugged Is My Cross," I describe my experiences at Mc Cune and their effect on my remaining adolescent and adult life.

My release from the boys home was traumatic in the greatest sense imaginable. Alone and without funds I made my way to Kansas City by hitch-hiking. There, I begged for food at the back doors of restaurants. I had no understanding of what it meant to be employed or that people worked to survive. I slept in the doorways of office buildings, sometimes on the front porches of private homes. Occasionally I was picked by the police and kept for two or three days in the city jail.

Eventually I found myself in the freight yards of the railroads. Disgusted with life in the city I hopped my first freight heading west, the beginning of a life of adventure and growth.

I was present when a man died of TB in the dark dungeon of a boxcar. His missing shoes remained vividly among my memories. It taught me a lesson about life that could not have been impressed any other way.

I remember Doc Havens. The doctor was in the boxcar with the sick man and myself. I was impressed with his candor and humor while shocked at his loss of position. He was a tall man, somewhat scrawny from lack of food. He seemed to say a lot in a very few words. He was the instrument of my learning respect for other people and property.



Hal Buffa

School buddy Jim Silver (born without one hand) and I had boxcar to ourselves in Texas when a black man in a suit and tie joined us. He had done jury duty and was on his way home. After a long ride he told us he could get us a job picking cotton. We went with him to where he lived; His family fed us and we slept on their porch.

The next morning he took us to our job. We lasted less than an hour! We didn’t collect any wages. After thanking him, we hopped the next train out.


Hap Hasty

I lived in Carmel by the Sea on the Monterey Peninsula, known widely for attracting artists, writers, musicians, poets, scientists.

1932 was the year the severe effects of the sad economic situation hit Carmel. I was 17 years old and responsible for supporting my mother, younger sister and two elderly aunts.

I withdrew a couple of thousand dollars I had gathered selling newspapers in Los Angeles at the time the famous evangelists Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared. I gave my mother the money, all but a dollar and took off to find employment.

Railroad cops taught me what cruelty was. I saw guys kicked off trains going over bridges. I saw one lose both legs and bleed to death.



Harold Dropkin

How I remember the date, Feb 1, 1933. We lived at 1747 47 Street Brooklyn. I sat in the kitchen with my mother.

A knock on the door about noon. Mother opened the door and a well-dressed man asked mother for something to eat.

He was invited in, asked to sit at the kitchen table, and mother asked me to get the can of tuna fish from out of the refrigerator. Upon opening the fridge, I saw nothing but the tuna fish.

I opened the can, mother spread the tuna on three slices of bread and we ate.

We finished. He thanked mother and he left. I walked over to the refrigerator and looked in. Nothing. Nada.

At that point I became a miser. For the next sixty-one years you couldn’t pry a cent out of me.



Harry Christian

Age 19-120

summer of 1934

I had completed a six-month hitch in the CCC, and had no sort of job, high school education but no skills. Family struggling, so I set out to follow the harvest and also to see some of the country.

Always a loner, I just stood to one side and observed. In a ' hobo jungle' in Kansas City, KS in the shadow of the Colgate-Palmolive plant I watched a card sharp fleece what money showed, and one lad in particular, after losing all his cash, put up his billfold, and of course he lost that too. It had a picture of his mother in it and he cried real tears and pleaded to get that back at least.

It was not cards, it was the pea-under-the-shell con, but the results were foregone, of course. He tried to get me to bet my boots, and he was prepared to see me leave in my sock feet, but I had no part of it.

In a little Texas town the train was stopped in a 'cut' with no chance to escape. Texas Rangers came down both sides of the train picking us off. We were herded into a circle and while flashlights beamed in our eyes they took every dime from each of us at gun point.

One man in group claimed to be a school teacher from Illinois, and he was carrying a Travelers Check. The officer rebuked him sharply but apparently was afraid to try to cash the check, so he didn’t take it. I lost seventy-five cents. All the while I had a twenty dollar bill in the sole of my hightop boots.

When they had stolen all of our money that they could find they pointed with a flashlight and told us to run.

One of the group was black, and they made him run first. He ran into a ditch with two feet of water in it, and a fence. I heard him floundering around and I ran at right angles.

Earlier a Ranger had struck the same little black boy in the head with his pistol and the blood flowed freely. When he started to cry (he wasn't over 12) the ranger asked him why he was crying, and when he said: "You hit me". the brave Ranger said: "Who hit you?" and the answer was: "Well, someone hit me." The boy caught on at once.

The Texas Rangers, though unknown by name, represented to me a horrible abuse of power. At that time they drew a dollar a year from the state and that gave them the right to carry a gun, but they were really rent-a-cops for industry, the railroads as an example. A bully with authority is a frightening thing, and that, sadly, is what some of them were.

The jailer in Marshall, Texas, a Mr. Cole, was quite decent with his charges. At the time the rangers had picked off 18 of us, 17 white, one black, and as you can imagine, he was housed separately, so he was accorded different treatment, we heard. Fed but twice a day, we were allowed to have a trusty buy day-old rolls for us for a few cents, and that was a treat. Mr. Cole could just as easily denied us the privilege.

To while away the time we would hold kangaroo court about every couple of hours for some trifling offense. The most serious, a fellow hobo found to have a 50 cent piece he hadn’t put into the common pot so he was made to run the gauntlet. I wondered at the time what would have happened had my $20 bill surfaced.

Group of FSA (Farm Security Administration) clients listening to speaker on project near Marshall, Texas. Sabine Farms, Texas - Photo: Russell Lee
Group of FSA (Farm Security Administration) clients listening to speaker on project near Marshall, Texas. Sabine Farms, Texas                                      Photo: Russell Lee

I slept on a front porch of a house close to the tracks. It was the home of an African-American family and when I told my tale they weren’t surprised: According to them a Texas Ranger had recently been killed by a black hobo, so the rangers were out to balance the books and never missed an opportunity to harass blacks.

It wasn't scenery, or a natural wonder, it was the overwhelming, abject poverty that I saw so many places. One poor farmer in Arkansas, I think it was, let me have breakfast for helping put up some fence. Breakfast consisted of sorgum molasses and a biscuit baked at least a day earlier, and I ate as well as he.

Earlier, while I was in the CCC, a farmer's wife would sell us a hot, home-baked pie for a quarter, and we took advantage of it every day while we were on their farm. Imagine, a pie for twenty-five cents. If she grew the filling, she didn't make very good wages.
To discourage hoboes the railroads had an arrangement with various small towns in Texas to jail vagrants caught riding the rails. Under the then law they could hold any such for seven days, at which time they must be either booked or released. On any given day some town would be emptying the past week’s catch, and would almost immediately fill up with another supply.

With luck one could ride through several small towns with impunity as it didn’t happen to coincide with the seven day release date, but sooner or later one would time it wrong, the train would be stopped outside of town, while the bulls came down both sides, and one’s riding ended for a week.
This was my fate in Marshall, Texas. As we were never booked nor faced any judge, no record exists of this practice. It was understood among the undone hobos that the railroads compensated the towns on a per diem basis.
Harry Kaban
I was 17 years old, when I graduated high school in Brooklyn, NY during the Depression. It was next to impossible to find a job.

I wanted to see the country so two days after my graduation my mother packed a lunch for me. I told her I was going on a picnic with my friends. We got on a subway train and we were off to see the USA and maybe find a job.

It was not hard to survive. People were sympathetic and kind. Being Jewish didn’t hurt at all. When we arrived in town, we headed for the nearest synagogue and they would give us two vouchers – one for lodging and one for food. Sometimes we would bring a gentile friend along and he would get the vouchers too.

“We were coming into a small town in Georgia and we jumped off before the train arrived at the station. We tried to avoid the yard detectives, but this time they were waiting for us. They lined up about 30 of us.

There was one young black man among us. We liked him a lot and we traveled with him for awhile.

The detectives singled him out and beat him up. They shouted for the rest of us to get out of the RR yard.

This was during the night. We scattered and they started shooting at us. I saw a hole and jumped into it. It was a most frightening experience. We took the first train going north. We never saw our black friend again.
J Basham
At Yuma, to discourage bums from bothering citizens, two huge sand piles. For one hour of labor of loading sand in a wheelbarrow and wheeling it over to this other pile of sand – dumping it out reloading the sand and repeating the process over and over – you were given a meal ticket good for 20 cents at a pretty good cafe

El Reno, Oklahoma: The railroad bull there told about 150 to 200 of us that there was a silk train carrying nothing but silk from the Orient that would be leaving at such and such a time and he didn’t want one of you sons on that train. "If you do try to ride it I will be forced to shoot you. The law says that I have a right to do so. But at 6 a.m. there is a freight train leaving these yards. I want ever one of you sons of bitches on that train."

At Colton, CA..I walked over to a jungle that the city had built for the hobos. I saw a guy walking around barefooted and mad as hell. He had loaned his shoes to another bum to go out and rustle something to eat for both of them and the guy had just taken off for parts unknown leaving this guy barefooted.

Could the young people of today have the courage to bum around and live as people had to live in such desperately trying time of yesteryear? Would they work underground as I did at the old Davis Dunkirk mines – 16 miles out of Prescott, Arizona - for $1.50 for nine to ten hours of backbreaking work? Or shovel gravel out of the Salt River for 10 hours for $2.50 a day? Would they wash dishes for $16 a week for 7 days? Crank airplanes at Phoenix sky Harbor for 50 cents an hour. Would they drive a heavy duty 10-wheel dump truck in Northern Arizona for $1.12 ½ an hour? No I don’t think so.

Tourist swatting fly in Phoenix, Arizona tourist court Photo: Russell Lee
Tourist swatting fly in Phoenix, Arizona tourist court  Photo: Russell Lee