Hobos have been traveling the US and riding the rails since the Civil War. The romanticized image of the hobo peaked during the depression of the 1930's, when many took to the rails in a desperate search for work. It must be noted that a hobo differs from a tramp or a bum. Most hobos would agree that a hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders and the bum drinks and wanders.

Hobos were often welcomed in areas of under employment or when their labor was required. They were also viewed as a menace when unemployment was high or when the hobo's labor was no longer needed. Many times they were literally driven out of town by the local police who would meet incoming freight trains and take the hobos to the county line.

For the hobos the train is their primary method of transport as they roam the country in search of work. Because of this, hobos have an intimate connection and knowledge of trains and railroading in general. In the early 20th century, the increasing use of cars and trucks brought a reduction in the number of passengers and freight to be transported. This would ultimately lead to decreasing rail network upon which the hobo could travel. The nearly total replacement of steam engines by diesels in the 1950's also contributed to the decline of the hobo. Steam engines had to make regular stops to take on water and this allowed hoboes to get on or off trains at these points and many hobo camps were located beside water tanks.

The 1930's was a decade of mostly tolerance towards the hobo. For example some railroads would attach empty box cars to freight trains to accommodate the large numbers of hobos. It's not certain if these were acts of charity or an attempt to stop hobos from breaking into sealed cars.


Among hobos messages were routinely exchanged about where to find work, or hand out or perhaps mark a place that was not good for hobos. These messages were often written with a piece of coal or chalk on fences, signs, trees or just about any place a note was warranted. These signs also contributed to the hobo's sense of kinship with his fellow travellers. This perhaps unconsciously occurred because they shared a language unique to the hobo community.

The model railroad shown here was built to display hobo codes and many can be seen in these photographs.




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HOBOs and the Railroads during the early 20th century depression