America still has a nostalgic fascination with several characters of bygone days. Cowboys are one example, though there are probably nowhere near as many working cowboys as there were 100 years ago and, while some of the work is still done from horseback, motorized vehicles are much more common.
Hobos are another example. Despite the prevalence of air travel and passenger cars as the preferred travel options for millions of Americans, there are still people who prefer to catch a freight train to their next destination.
The reasons for riding the rails vary. Some hop trains as a way to travel around the country without having to pay. Others hop trains for the same reasons as the hobos did 100 years ago to travel to a new city or state in hopes of finding work.
Hobos began on freight trains following the Civil War when soldiers could be found riding the rails. The phenomenon increased during the Great Depression in the 1930s when many people found themselves unemployed and without job prospects at home. Hopping a freight train to a new area allowed these hobos to travel around the country in search of whatever work they could find.
A modern parallel to Depression era migrant workers can be found in the thousands of workers who have flocked to the Bakken oil fields in recent years. Many are driven by a lack of jobs at home and arrive by car, bus, or train, often without enough money to rent a place to live or buy food on their arrival.
Train hopping is not without risks, however. To start with, it is illegal. Hobos face arrest by railroad police (called “bulls”) or, at the very least, being kicked off the train and possibly fined. The hobo life is also dangerous, with many people being severely injured or even killed trying to board or exit moving trains. Exposure to weather and cargo adds to the risk hobos face in trying to travel by train.
Motherboard recently featured a story about modern hobos titled “The Hobos of Instagram”. The story focuses on the ways in which today’s hobos are using technology to both enhance and share their train hopping adventures. Where a few years ago hobos might not carry any electronic gadgets, today it’s not uncommon to see hobos with smartphones, e-readers, GPS devices, and even laptop computers. Hobo-related websites and forums, digital maps, and online job boards like Craigslist have redefined how many travel by rail in the 21st century.
Have you ever hopped a train to travel? Would you be willing to try it, or do you think it’s too dangerous to travel as a hobos do?