primary documents

1930s Montana excerpts from Riding the Rails

At the height of the Great Depression, 250,000 teenage hoboes were roaming America. Some left home because they felt they were a burden to their families; some fled homes shattered by the shame of unemployment and poverty. Some left because it seemed a great adventure. With the blessing of parents or as runaways, they hit the road and went in search of a better life.

A boy’s or girl’s decision to leave home was intensely personal, often spurred by naïveté and hope. Many held grand visions of finding work and sending money home. Like their parents, many sought jobs that simply did not exist.

Public perceptions of the road kids differed. There were people who saw the American pioneer spirit embodied in the young wanderers. There were others who feared them as the vanguard of an American rabble potentially as dangerous as the young Fascists then on the march in Germany and Italy.

What was indisputable, and what was highlighted by a series of government inquiries that addressed the “Youth Problem, ” was that crumbling family structures were not the only reason these children left home. Across the nation, school doors were locked or classrooms hours drastically reduced. Four out of ten youths of high school age were not in school. Many so-called vagrant boys had looked for work in their home town for two or three years before they hit the rails.

The young nomads of the Great Depression struggled to survive in a country “dying by inches, ” in the words of Franklin Roosevelt. Resourceful, adventurous, and brave, they met joy and terror, loneliness and grandeur on their journeys. A lost generation seeking to find itself, they would be profoundly influenced by what they saw and experienced on the road.

Two youths sat on the narrow walkway of a tank car that pulled out of Helena, Montana, bound for Spokane, Washington. Minnesotan Paul Swenson had served a year in the CCC and was bumming around the country in the summer of 1939 before going to college. A fifteen-year-old boy was already seated on the tank car when Swenson climbed aboard and moved closer as the train picked up speed.

“I’d seen the Rocky Mountains in the distance for the last couple of days and had been aware we were gaining altitude. I was totally unprepared for the rapid descent down the range, ” says Swenson.

“The engine lurched forward, letting out the slack between the couplings with a sudden violent jerk that ran the full length of the segmented monster. When the cars raced forward, the process was reversed and the couplings slammed together. The train thundered down the slope as though it was out of control.

“The kid was scared but I reveled in the ride. We rolled down the mountain and shot across deep river gorges, the wheel flanges grinding against the rails with a shower of sparks, the sound of iron on iron and the rattling of the freight rising deafeningly.”

Swenson’s hair-raising ride ended at Paradise, a watering stop where the pair of youths switched to a boxcar. p. 105-106

Herbert Rand and his friend Frank Hubbs, two sixteen-year-olds out for adventure in winter 1934, were in a gondola in Montana with half a dozen farm hands and a large woman in overalls.

They survived the cold by piling up in a corner with the fleshy female in the middle to provide warmth. In grim contrast, teenager H.T. Roach was traveling through Montana the previous January: At the depot in Glasgow, he saw a small crowd of people standing around a fellow crouched next to a wall. He wasn’t sleeping though. They’d found him frozen to death in a boxcar in that position and were waiting for the undertaker. p. 107-108

Jack Jeffrey, a seventeen-year-old hoboing in the summer of 1932. . . enjoyed the largess of a yard bull at Havre, Montana, a man whose reputation he had heard of as far away as Roseville, California. Jeffrey was trying to climb onto the blinds of the Empire Builder when he was spotted by a detective and pursued through the Havre yards.

“I could hear his footsteps getting closer as I ducked under a boxcar. The bull ran past me and stopped. He swept the beam of his flashlight back and forth and soon the torch was on me. As he grabbed my feet and pulled me out, I smashed my nose. He seized my shirt front and raised me to tiptoes, shining his light in my face, no doubt to get a sure target for the blow that was coming.

“I was surprised to hear him say, ‘I never hit an injured man.’ He took me to a shack with cold running water. By the time the bleeding stopped and I was patched up, we were almost friends.

‘How long since you ate?’ he asked. It was a day since I’d had a meal. That big, rough and tough guy took me to an all-night greasy spoon and bought me a stack of hotcakes and coffee.” p. 120-121

[Tiny Boland, 1934]: My last meal at home consisted of boiled potatoes for supper, no gravy, no bread. It was the only meal that day. I hugged my Mom and said goodbye and then left.

My only possession was a new Gruen wristwatch, which I had bought for a dollar down and fifty cents a week. I went to the grocer and asked him if I could pawn it for five bucks. He said four dollars was all he could spare, so I took it.

Three friends and I arranged to travel together to the West Coast. I met them at the rail yards across the Missouri at North Riverside on the edge of Sioux City, Iowa, where we found a train going north to Aberdeen, South Dakota.

None of us knew anything about riding freight trains. You simply did it. You went down to the yards, climbed on a boxcar, and went wherever that train took you.

It is four hundred miles from Aberdeen, South Dakota, to Miles City, Montana. In twelve hours we had one drink of water and no food. Immediately after we pulled into town, I went into a bakery and lucked out. The baker gave me a bag of day-old rolls without even asking that I wash his pans or sweep the floor. One of my buddies was given coffee grounds. At a hobo jungle beside the tracks we built a fire, hooked a Number 10 can on a crotch stick, and tossed in the coffee grounds. That was probably the best cup of coffee I remember.

When we crossed the Great Divide around the middle of May, the weather was still very cold. One of my buddies had a fever and looked as though he was coming down with pneumonia. I gave him my bedroll to keep warm.

I was riding in an open gondola car loaded with reinforced steel. When the freight stopped at a siding to let a passenger train pass, I was shaking so badly that I caused that rebar to vibrate. A fellow stood up and took me by the shoulders.

“Son, you’re going to freeze to death. You wanna come and get in my bedroll with me?”

It was night and I couldn’t see who was talking to me in the dark. “Sure, ” I said. Anything was better than freezing. I climbed in with the stranger.

The following morning my three buddies expressed shock to see me asleep in a bedroll with a black man.

“Are you all right?” they asked.

“I sure am, ” I said. “Thanks to this gentleman here.”

We sat talking with my rescuer, who was one of the most knowledgeable men I came across in all my days as a hobo. He knew when every train was going to make up and when and where it was going to leave. p. 128-140

Burland Webster and three road buddies set out from Long Beach, California, in the summer of 1934 to see the Chicago World’s Fair. Within two days of leaving home, the boys were learning the meaning of life on the bum, as excerpts from Webster’s diary indicate:

July 4, 1934: We spent most of the day going over the mountains in Idaho and Montana. About 6 P.M. we arrived in Missoula, where the train stopped for fifteen minutes. I rushed up town to get a loaf of bread but found the stores closed. I went back empty-handed and empty-stomached. To improve our mood we opened Hammond’s can of horse meat, as we called it.

July 5, 1934: We had a marvelous breakfast of figs. Dinner consisted of part of a loaf of bread and a can of beans. Supper is the most delightful meal: a hunk of bread broken off rather than sliced.

Just as the beautiful Montana sun was sinking over the hills, I saw two figures dash across the front of the sun. It was a man and a girl. We watched them melt together in a lover’s embrace; then they disappeared over the hill. We all sighed. Hammond and Clyde just looked kinda sad. Jack said “doggone” and looked forlorn. I felt lonesome. p. 150-151

A friend who was a policeman told Pat O’Connell’s father that his house number was written on a fence in the hobo jungle at Billings, Montana. O’Connell’s father was a cattle buyer and frequently shipped animals by rail. He would pay hoboes to help sort and load animals and would employ some on his holding ranch. “At home mother always gave ‘askers’ a sandwich and a cup of coffee when they arrived, ” said O’Connell. “After they’d washed up, she fed them a full meal on the steps of our back porch. When they left, she gave each a quarter. It was a damn difficult time-a humiliating time for many.” p. 168

Everett Childers, one of seven children, quit his home in Marshfield, Oregon, in December 1931 to alleviate the burden on his parents. The fifteen-year-old was also heartbroken over the recent death of a favorite sister. Everett buddied up with a youth from Montana and rode the rails through sixteen states over the next two and a half years. He never forgot a time when he had been without food for three days and offered to mow a woman’s lawn in exchange for a meal.

“I worked two hours with a push mower and finished the lawn. When I asked for my food, the lady said I had to cut the backyard as well. I was so weak with hunger I couldn’t do it. I just went up the road crying.” p. 171

Edward Palasz approached a man in the street in Great Falls, Montana, and asked if he could spare a dime for a cup of coffee. “For ten minutes I had to listen to a lecture on the economy and how much food we were wasting in the U.S. I was awarded a ten-cent piece by the man, who had more money in his bulging pocketbook than I would make in a year.” p. 173

Wisconsin-born farm boy Fred Schatz was nineteen when he went on the road with his friend Leo Elder. They lived the migrant’s life for two years, working in harvest fields in the Dakotas and Minnesota and joining railroad extra gangs as laborers. Few jobs lasted more than a couple of months or provided adequate money for accommodation. Schatz became acquainted with the best and worst of the transient shelters and flophouses.

“When we checked into the Billings, Montana, shelter, for example, after filling in a questionnaire we took a bath. While we washed, they took our clothes and fumigated them-after a while your clothing started to disintegrate from all the fumigation. When you had your bath, you were checked over by a doctor, the larger centers having dispensaries. Some places let you stay up to three days but most had a twenty-four-hour limit, as we found at Billings.” p. 178-179

Tennys Tennyson had been on a freight train for three days when it pulled into Havre, Montana. The fifteen-year-old Tennyson and four hoboes scoured the town for food. Two hours later Tennyson and three others had collected an assortment of items, including bread, fruit, and vegetables. The fifth hobo, who had been assigned to get meat, showed up half an hour later with two live turkeys. p. 183

Jan van Heé was sixteen when he ran away from his parents’ farm in the Montana buttes in 1937. “I left a note between the salt and pepper shakers: ‘I’ll be back when I have money and a car.’” He promised to repay five dollars he snitched from his folks.

Born in Holland, where he spent his first ten years with his grandfather, Jan was a city boy when he came to the isolated community near Marysville, Montana. “Farm animals scared me, especially the pigs that looked about ready to eat me. Dad soon changed that. Within a few years, I was doing the work of a man around the farm, working seven days a week during harvest time”

An outsider in a community populated by the descendants of pioneers who arrived in covered wagons, Jan was plagued with problems throughout his school years. Three months before he was due to graduate in 1937, his principal gave him his diploma and sent him home.

Already living close to the belt and forced to slaughter half their herd of a thousand sheep, his father told him he had no paying work for him on the farm. His mother and he didn’t get along. When his parents went to bed that night, Jan stuffed his things into a pillowcase and left.

He hiked to the train station at Marysville, Montana, where he heaved his belongings into an open boxcar. “Welcome, ” he heard a voice say from a dark corner. A hefty Scotsman greeted me. I told “Scotty” I’d run away tolook for work. He tried to talk me out of leaving home but I wouldn’t go back.

I got my first lessons in hoboing from Scotty. He laughed when he saw my big pillowcase stuffed with all the world’s goods. He took my blanket and showed me how to roll my things into a tight, trim bundle I could carry on my back-my first hobo bindle.

There were many things I wasn’t prepared for when I rode my first freight train. The noise as the locomotive took up slack-Crash! Crash! Crash!-you could hear it coming closer. A huge bang from the boxcar coupling and I fell flat on my face. Until you became accustomed to it, the noise was frightening, all the bang-ing and rattling and the clatter of the wheels. As you picked up speed, the wind blasted through the slats in the wooden boxcar.

You try to sit on the floor but four-fifths of the time you’re airborne. So you stand until your feet start hurting. You try sitting on your bindle but the vibration and the jolts just keep coming.

You worry about how you are going to climb off. No matter how good you get, there are things you’re not going to see, like a hidden rock or a signal standard. I saw one guy who smashed into a signal and wiped out his face.

Are you gonna wait until you roll into the train station? Maybe have the mayor greet you? Are you going to get your head bashed in by some guy with a pickax handle? p. 191

Clifford St. Martin and his road partner Hank Beckner, who hoboed together for four years, made a living as “junkers.” They scoured city dumps for pickings, sometimes striking it lucky. On the dump at Glendive, Montana, they found discarded hospital sheets. After laundering the sheets in a jungle, they sold them to car dealers for use as cleaning rags. At Alder, Montana, they picked up so much copper wire they couldn’t carry it away. They drew straws to see who would cross the foothills to the nearest junk dealer in Dillon. “Hank walked forty miles and came back with the dealer, who paid us forty dollars, ” said St. Martin. “We bought new shoes and overalls. We had a few good meals and slept in a bed a couple of times. Then we were broke again.” p. 210-211

With the coming of 1933, Roosevelt and the New Deal government’s $3 billion public works programs created thousands of jobs on projects ranging from flood control in the Tennessee Valley to construction of “megadams” like Fort Peck on the Missouri River. In spring 1936, nineteen-year-old Bernard Carlson completed his first year at Jamestown College, North Dakota. Like most North Dakota farmers, his parents were just getting by with no extra cash to finance his college education. Carlson rode the rails a thousand miles to Fort Peck in Montana to get a summer job.

“I was given work on the bedbug control crew at fifty cents an hour. The wage was double what was paid for farm labor, ” said Carlson. “We took a squirt can of kerosene and went through the barracks inspecting bunks for bugs. If we found any they were given a shot of kerosene.” After a couple of weeks Carlson transferred to a crew working on the surface of the dam. He stayed in Montana until the beginning of September, when he headed back home. “I’d had the chance to work with eleven thousand men from every walk of life building one of the world’s marvels of engineering. I earned good wages and had enough money to go back to college.” p. 213

© 2003 Routledge
Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move during the Great Depression. by Errol Lincoln Uys

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/01 at 02:31 PM
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©2006 Montana Heritage Project