The American HOBO An Extinct Species


| March/April 1976



Courtenay, North Dakota 58426

Few of today's elderly citizens who happened to live in any of the small towns located on the mainline railroads in the Northwest before or after the turn of the century, will have difficulty recalling the hoards of transient laborers who swarmed into their towns or villages each autumn. They came in groups and droves, both large and small these homeless wanderers who made their annual exodus to the Northwest for the fall harvest. Their means of transportation was the westbound freight trains. They rode the 'empties', the 'tops', the 'rods' and a few bold ones among them rode the engine's tender. But mostly they rode the 'empties', which were frequently grain or coal cars being returned to the Northwest for reloading. They were generally ignored by the train crew, and for a good reason. These 'passengers' often far outnumbered the train crew itself.

Like their predecessors the buffalo and the passenger pigeon, they made their annual appearance without fail, and like the same predecessors they were simply taken for granted. In our thoughtless innocence we assumed that was the way it had to be, and would always be. Time and the forces of change have long since proven how wrong one can be.

Although nearly all of the towns and villages along the main line railroads of the Northwest were affected by their coming, yet it was the towns that made up the many division points that felt the real brunt of their coming. It was here that the through freights take on or leave off cars of freight. It was these small towns that had their population swollen noticeably each fall by the coming of these transients. Let us pause here to give credit where credit is due. Although they arrived in large numbers and could easily have overpowered the local police (which often consisted of only one man) and taken over the town with little effort, yet they did not. For the most part and with few exceptions, they were relatively peaceful men. In some of the larger towns the railroad company employed their own police to police the railroad yards. However, his authority was limited to the railroad property and did not include the town. Needless to say, there was little brotherly love between the hobos and the railroad 'bull' as he was called.

As might be expected, these men were often short of cash, and until they found employment (generally on a steam threshing rig where board was furnished) it was necessary that they feed themselves, and as cheaply as possible. This brought into existence the 'bums camp' or 'jungles' as they were often called, generally located at the edge of town. Here men camped in the open and cooked food bought at the local store, and sometimes supplemented by a few vegetables 'borrowed' from a nearby garden. Generally they slept in the empty boxcars left standing on the sidings, or in the hay of the stockyards which the railroads furnished for the shipping of livestock before the advent of the truck. Each town, however small was not without its stockyards. Seldom, if ever, could one of these men afford to patronize even the cheapest hotel. They slept in the clothes they wore and seldom did one carry a blanket. However, considering the extremely rugged conditions in which they lived, they were surprisingly well groomed. Dressed in working clothes, with faces shaved and hair trimmed, they presented, for the most part, a rather neat appearance, and in sharp contrast to some of the styles seen upon our streets today.

As might be expected, they were of no one type or pattern-in fact, they were as diverse and different as any segment of our population could be. They had but one thing in common they were all homeless wanderers. There was the young hobo, scarcely more than a boy, who felt that with much profanity and loud talk he could earn the title of hobo. There was the grizzly old veteran hobo who had bummed for more years, and had been to more places than he could remember. For him, it was not necessary to lift the voice or put on an act. A glance would tell that he was the genuine tramp. There were men possessing a high degree of intelligence and some education, neither of which would be put to good use. And there was the poor unfortunate possessing neither, who was doomed to struggle all of his life for a bare subsistence.