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The best strategies for jumping on a train, from 1900s hobos

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In the 1930s, lightweight boxer Lou Ambers occasionally rode the rails across the country.
In the 1930s, lightweight boxer Lou Ambers occasionally rode the rails across the country.
Alan Fisher/Library of Congress

The hobo is familiar as a character from kitsch art and silent film and feels like a romantic caricature today. But these traveling hobos were real — and they honed surprisingly complex strategies for riding the rails.

There may have been a million hobos in 1915 ... and they needed to keep moving

The term "hobo" is a loose one used to define everything from happy-go-lucky train hoppers to large homeless communities (and sometimes derogatorily so). But in its most popular definition, itinerant workers traveling the country by train use the word to describe themselves and their unique and intentional lifestyle. There was and still is a proud tradition of self-identified hobos.

These hobos were most active from the 1890s through the 1930s. It's difficult to know how many there were (since part of their goal was to avoid detection), but one 1915 estimate put their population at
1 million. And their ranks swelled during the Great Depression as work became scarce.

Hobos tended to have a particular character, too. Sociologist Nels Anderson wrote about them in his groundbreaking 1923 book The Hobo, and though he dealt with large homeless communities that were the opposite of carefree, he also identified a particular hobo group that followed "the American tradition of pioneering, wanderlust, [and] seasonal employment." This was the group that proudly called itself "Hobohemia."

Hobohemia was home to the peculiar dreamers, small-time criminals, and railroad experts we imagine when we hear "hobo" today. These itinerant workers were expert at hopping on and off trains, and they liked to brag about it, too, since it could be incredibly dangerous.

Hobos worked hard to evade brutal private police

These hobos are being shipped away from Los Angeles in 1936. Many local police forces tried to simply kick out the hobos, leaving the more permanent problem for private railroad police.

These hobos are being shipped away from Los Angeles in 1936. Many local police forces tried to simply kick out the hobos, leaving the more permanent problem for private railroad police.

American Stock/Getty Images

When hobos were common, most believed the private police were a bigger threat than civil police forces.

That may be because the railroads had more reason to dislike hobos. In addition to riding the rails, hobos occasionally broke into boxcars and stores, which spoiled goods both on the train and in communities near train routes, endangering a railroad's operation through the town.

That meant civil police — the hobo-labeled "town clowns" — were usually more focused on kicking hobos out of town than on jailing them.

But railroad police couldn't avoid the hobo problem. Called "bo chasers" and "car-seal hawks," they adopted extremely aggressive tactics. They took it as their job to terrorize those who rode the rails, often by any means necessary. In addition to bouncing out hobos on trains, they often threw stones at hobos or shot them. "He is a hunter," Anderson wrote of the railroad officer, "and the tramp is his prey."

All that led to a staggering death toll. In 1920, 2,166 trespassers were killed and 2,363 were injured on trains or in railroad yards. That led hobos to do whatever they could to avoid being spotted.

Hobos found many (dangerous) ways to ride a train without getting caught

The exact origin of this picture is unknown: these hobos may be German. But here they are shown "decking" a train as any hobo would.

The exact origin of this picture is unknown; these hobos may be German. But here they are shown "decking" a train as any hobo would.

Mario Müller/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Keeping the railroad police in mind, what was the best way to hop a train car?

1) Finding an empty car. This was ideal. It gave hobos space to stay without the threat of being crushed by shifting goods or injured during a bumpy ride. Occasionally, hobos even tore up the floors of these empty cars for firewood.

2) Hiding between cars. Most hobos also liked "riding the blinds" by swinging onto the front end of a baggage car. The location between cars helped them avoid being spotted by railroad police. Though there was a threat of being crushed between cars, the ability to avoid detection made it relatively safe.

"Only a young and vigorous tramp is able to deck a passenger train"

3) Riding on top. To "deck" a car was extremely dangerous, since it was easy to be thrown off the top of the train. Author Jack London, who did his own time riding the rails, wrote about the practice in The Road: "And let me say right here that only a young and vigorous tramp is able to deck a passenger train, and also, that the young and vigorous tramp must have his nerve with him as well."

If that didn't work, there was another heart-racing option.

4) Riding beneath the train:

In 1950, a man demonstrates how hobos rode the rods.

In 1950, a man demonstrates how hobos rode the rods.

Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Today, "riding the rails" is synonymous with any travel on a train. But in the past, it occasionally referred to the specific act of riding rails underneath train cars.

Older trains required support trusses for heavier cargo, and that gave a space for hobos to ride on under the train (those rods were abandoned with the advent of stronger steel cars around the 1930s). It was extremely dangerous, but there was an advantage: the conductor couldn't kick you out until the train stopped.

Unfortunately, the rods came with a lot of risk. As London described, a cruel brakeman could lower a pin on a rope underneath the train, where it would smack up and down against the bottom of the rods, battering hobos underneath until they were beaten or killed. And that wasn't the only dangerous option.

5) Riding in refrigerator cars. London spent a glorious night in a refrigerated car. He burned papers on the floor and slept like a baby through the night.

Not only were these ice-cooled cars a break from hot temperatures, they carried food and could store hobos' food, too. But for many hobos, refrigerated cars were death traps.

Usually only hobos who didn't know any better would go inside the car. That's because railroad police were aware of the temptation and were known to lock hobos inside to freeze. Men froze to death in the refrigerator cars, as Maury "Steam Train" Graham recalled in Tales of the Iron Road: My Life as King of the Hobos.

6) Trying everything else. There were other, more dangerous riding places too. As described in American Tramp and Underworld Slang, written by Godfrey Irwin in 1971, hobos could also ride as "blind baggage tourists" (pretending they had tickets), as "open-air navigators" (on top of open freight), or as "bumper riders" (standing on the couplers between cars).

But all those inventive, adrenaline-pumping tactics had an expiration date.

When Hobohemia left the tracks

By the end of the 1930s, the hobo rail-riding phenomenon had faded due to a variety of factors, including the improving economy. As the century continued, increasing freight train speed, more trucking, and new laws made hobos rarer. As trains got faster, it became harder to hop them, and hitchhiking probably took some of the population as well. Rail-riding hobos didn't disappear, but they became much less common.

Still, Hobohemia hasn't completely disappeared. A culture of hobos ensured that — which may be why there are still hobo conventions even today. And some of the attendees will probably take a nice train to get there.