Death of the American Hobo

The National Hobo Convention Reaches the End of the Line

By Aaron Lake Smith; Photos by: Jackson Fager

The author fast asleep on a grainer porch, somewhere in Utah or Wyoming

B e wary of any enterprise that requires new clothes,” Thoreau warned. The great New England radical and nonconformist could be described as the proto-hobo, with his emphasis on self-sufficiency, living outdoors, and aimlessly wandering the still-virginal American landscape. Historians agree that the modern American hobo emerged after the Civil War. The nation’s young men had returned to devastation at home. Some, already accustomed to sleeping outside and foraging for food, became transients, setting off across the country in search of work. In the mid- to late 1800s, the growth of the hobo followed the westward sprawl of track. 

In the early days, hobos were migrant workers who jumped train cars rather than paying to ride in passenger class. One estimate put about 1 million hobos on the rails between 1890 and 1930. Ben Reitman, a peripatetic anarchist of the 1920s, famous for being the lover of Emma Goldman, subdivided the transient taxonomy as such: “Hobos [were] the unattached men and women traveling around looking for work; tramps the unattached penniless ones tramping around for excitement and adventure like myself, and bums, who make up the third and smallest but the most troublesome type of vagrant, the type addicted to drugs and to drink and who have lost all sense of respectability [italics mine].”

The turn of the century was a perilous time to be a hobo. Between 1898 and 1908, the Interstate Commerce Commission recorded an estimated 48,000 tramps killed on freight trains and an equal number maimed. It was common for migrants to “ride the rods,” lying across the skeletal steel bars under the train, extended like Superman. They also rode the “blinds,” crouching on the platforms of fast-moving passenger trains. Boxcars and lumber cars would often be so packed with riders that it was hard to find room inside. Life was cheap on the rails—some hobos fell off or under trains, others were murdered, while the least fortunate froze to death in refrigerator cars or suffocated in long tunnels unequipped with modern ventilation. Railroad expert Lee Wheelbarger told me a story that well illustrated these perils—the steam trains at the time sprayed boiling oil and hot effluent onto a little platform behind the second locomotive, called the “monkey porch.” On cold nights, hobos who didn’t know any better would move up the cars toward the warmth radiating from the locomotive’s furnace; when the crew found them, they were scalded so badly that they looked like burned monkeys. 

Today, if caught trespassing in a train yard by a railroad bull (rail police), you are given a polite warning, cited, or at worst thrown in jail for a couple of days. At the turn of the century, however, a low-grade guerrilla war raged between the rail companies and the hobos. Bulls would wantonly kill hobos, and the hobos would avenge the fallen by shooting bulls. This saga is best dramatized in the movie Emperor of the North Pole, in which a ruthless, hobo-murdering bull named “Shack” is challenged by the heroic hobo “A Number One.” A Number One is determined to jump Shack’s unridable train. The Shack character was probably loosely based on Jeff Carr, a turn-of-the-century bull with a terrifying reputation among itinerants. 

In his 1926 underworld autobiography You Can’t Win, outlaw author Jack Black wrote, “[Jeff Carr is] ‘bum simple’—simple-minded on the subject of killing bums. If you run, he’ll shoot you; if you stand, he’ll get you six months [in prison]. And he’d rather have you run.” Jack London also wrote about Carr in The Road, his 1907 book about train-hopping: “Fortunately, I never encountered Jeff Carr. I passed through Cheyenne in a blizzard. There were 84 hoboes [sic] with me at the time. The strength of numbers made us pretty nonchalant on most things, but not on Jeff Carr. The connotation of Jeff Carr stunned our imagination, numbed our virility and the whole gang was mortally scared of meeting him.”

In addition to murder, extortion was rampant. Railroad workers would barge into boxcars and shake down riders for the small amounts of cash they had, threatening to kick them off or have them arrested if they didn’t pay up. In the late 1800s, a group of hobos formed a union of unemployed and itinerant workers called Tourist Union #63 to protect themselves against the railroad workers and bulls. Some of these hobos went on to found the American Civil Liberties Union. More than 50 years later, in 1972, they won their long fight to repeal outdated and repressive vagrancy laws.

Around the turn of the century, Tourist Union #63 held their annual Hobo Convention in Chicago, then the nexus of American hobo life. Chicago had the biggest freight yards in the country and was a natural way station for the nation’s outlaws, criminals, radicals, and itinerants. After riots and police violence marred a couple of the conventions, the organizers put out word that they were looking to relocate. The founders of a small, newly incorporated farming community in Iowa called Britt got in touch to offer their humble lot as host.

Unlike so many towns with draconian vagrancy laws, Britt actually wanted the hobos around—they needed temporary farmworkers. They shrewdly saw that inviting hobos to their town was a way to distinguish themselves from other developing communities. So the founders bought the hobos first-class Pullman tickets from Chicago to check the place out. The hobos liked Britt—there was plenty of space in the little town to hold their large gatherings. A deal was made, and the National Hobo Convention has been held there for the past 112 years. 

Today, the hobos still descend on the quiet little town for one weekend a year in August to reconnect with their kin, honor their dead, eat mulligan stew, and elect a Hobo King and Queen. Britt has a Hobo Museum, a Hobo Graveyard, a Hobo Jungle, and even a shrine to the Unknown Hobo. 

I’d always wanted to attend the convention, so a scheme was hatched to ride trains from Oakland to Britt with three people I barely knew in just under five days. One should really have an open schedule when riding trains, allowing plenty of time for detours of fate and luck. Due to other obligations, more time was not possible, but we set off on the race anyway. As Tennessee Williams said, “Make voyages! Attempt them! There’s nothing else.”