Ridin’ the Rails:
The Place of the Passenger and the Space of the Hobo

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2004, Volume 3, Issue 2

John Lennon
Lehigh University

“The body” is an idea that has been at the center of debate in cultural studies where lines are drawn and redrawn over issues including race, gender, science, and technology. As the body has been theorized, however, it has also been torn and tattooed. Pulled away from the substance of blood and tissue, it has lost some of its physical authority. Bodies, however, are not mere theoretical ideas, ethereal and unsubstantial. They are physical entities existing in time, place, space even if they choose to manipulate their own invisibility, an act frequent among marginal peoples. Remaining faithful to the physicality of the body in this study, I want to contrast the body of the rail passenger against the “invisible” body within the rail hobo subculture. By inserting their bodies within designated areas of the actual machine of the railroad car, I will argue, hobos achieve a spatiality of subcultural power. 1.

The Place of the Passenger

The railroad line represents an invasion of place over space. Michel de Certeau, in a chapter entitled “Railway Navigation and Incarceration” from his influential book The Practice of Everyday Life, shows that inside the railroad car is a place of order where everything is in its right and proper place. It is “traveling incarceration” where the “unchanging traveler is pigeonholed, numbered and regulated in the grid of the railway car” (111). As passengers hand their tickets to the conductor, their movements are managed in this closed environment; they have been assigned a place to sit, to order lunch, to smoke a cigarette, and to relieve themselves: the price of a ticket allows them to perform certain bodily functions in logically organized and designated places. For the most part, though, they sit, immobile, and look out the glass pane at other immobile objects—cows staring dumbly in fields, mountain peaks covered in snow, streetlamps illuminating the night sky. As the window frames the “picture” that the passengers see, the objects, like them, become still, silent, fixed.

Like people who go to the cinema and stare at a screen, the passengers become voyeurs as they sit in their seats while the “action” outside the train is “caught” in what could be described as a frame in a film. It is not, however, the physical movement of the passengers that change the frames, rather, “vision alone continually undoes and remakes the relationships between these fixed elements” (112). These changes in their vision and the amount of scenery outside of their windows that they see and can process is therefore dependent on the machine’s speed; the faster the train moves, the more their vision and the frame become blurred. Inside this module of “panoptic and classifying power,” they are rational cells traveling within a rational cell (111). They are passing recognizable places (depending, of course, on the speed of the train)—places that have been scouted, mapped and, after much consideration, time and money, deemed most appropriate for the building of that particular track.

These decisions of placement are “strategies” designed by the railroad organizers only after much planning and negotiating to decide what space should come under their control. 2. Strategies, as de Certeau explains, are intimately aligned with the issue of place since they are

the calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships that become possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve those as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country surrounding the city, objectives and objects of research, etc.) can be managed. (35-36)

Strategies, therefore, are formed from bases of power and are used to manage and control objects; they are a mastery of “places through sight” (36). By dividing and bordering space, those “agents of order” strategize and therefore may be able to identify and manipulate any object within their scope of vision. And depending on the situation, the “targets” do not even know (or care) that they are being managed or controlled. This is the case with a person sitting in a seat on a train. The passengers, by paying for a ticket, have entered into a contract and agree to be managed by the railroad companies who have both the “will and power” to own the land that those tracks cover. They rely on the operators to take them on their journey and while they may not even know how they are getting there, they believe in their binding contract (the ticket) that, for example, the New York to Chicago express will somehow get them to Chicago in time for their meeting. When these lines of iron are placed into the ground, they define, categorize, and regulate the environment—something to which the passengers are mostly oblivious when they sit in the seat that has been assigned to them.

This idea of order and regulation provides a useful explication of place. As de Certeau states, “A place is thus an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability” (117). There is much pleasure that can be derived from being in a stable environment even if that pleasure is based on the need to follow the “proper rules.” The pleasure lies in the fact that passengers are in the place of the railroad car and that the “instantaneous configurations of positions” allow them to be cared for by the railroad companies. While their “position” is that of a dependant, the strict order leaves them, for the most part, free from worry. Sitting in their proper position, their spots are defined and stable; their role, for example, might be that of passenger number 42 on a Washington, D.C. to Pittsburg “red-eye” express and that role is strictly monitored by conductors and fellow passengers. All they need to do is to sit, relax, and allow themselves to be transported from one place to another.

The Space of the Hobo

While the passenger occupies a place on the train, the hobo inhabits the realm of space. All actions of the passengers are regulated; if they break their contract—for example, if they light a cigarette in a no-smoking section—then they can be removed and suffer the legal penalties. As passengers, we rely on this order, so we play the passive role. When there is a break or rupture in the order of this “social contract,” we realize how much we depend on others to follow their prescribed roles. Traveling through neighborhoods that we might feel afraid to walk through, we feel a sense of safety because we are confined and comfortably situated within the train. We are no longer active, worrying about our safety but passive, feeling sure that the order will prevail. Whether it is the fast speed at which we travel through the areas we fear or the feeling of invincibility riding in such a large and powerful machine, there is a cushion that comforts us within a train. As a result, when that order is disrupted, the anxiety and betrayal we feel is great.

Let me give an example: While I was traveling on a train in Portugal from a beach town to downtown Lisbon, a group of twenty or so men in their early twenties boarded the train at a suburban stop. As the train passed by a certain spot, on cue, they began attacking the passengers, stealing jewelry and watches, and terrorizing certain ethnic groups, all in the time it took to arrive at the next stop when, all at once, they ran out of the car. When the train began moving again, no one knew what to do; we were all in a state of shock and for the most part, we sat silently in our seats and stared straight in front of us. We did nothing but remain immobile waiting for the train to rumble to our own particular destinations. Personally, I was having trouble comprehending the moments of chaos that happened within the car. Unable to rationalize the level of violence in a place of such order, I sat in my seat and waited to be carried to my station. Not once during the trip did I become other than a passive passenger. As we were leaving the car, I heard one woman ask, “Where were the conductors?” We had followed our roles as passengers, and we wondered where the agents of order on whom we all relied had gone when the rational gave way to the chaotic.

What those twenty or so youths did in the time in-between platforms was to create a space for themselves within the realm of place. Space exists when there is a rupture in the stability of the environment, when subjects enter into a “proper” place and use it for their own purposes—purposes not sanctioned by those who “own” the place. Be it political soap-boxers proclaiming their manifestos on a street corner in Manhattan, thieves grabbing chains on a train in Portugal, or hobos stealing rides on a train headed to Kansas City, all assert their own subcultural power within a regulated place and—for a time at least—transform it into their own space.

This creation of space results in instability—a tear—in the order of things. It is a “practiced place” (de Certeau 117) where subjects use opportunities that are presented to them in order to carve a space in which to assert their own power. It is, however, the power of the weak. Unable to use strategies, they are left in the margins, poaching off the larger powers and taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented to them; they must always live in the present, using tactics to play with the law that is oppressing them (37). These twenty or so youths, while powerful in the short time that it took to travel in-between stations, did not have the power of the “proper,” and if they had spent too long in one place, they eventually would have been stopped and arrested for their actions. Strategies belong to the strong (I later heard that the police were “strategizing” on how better to protect passengers from these guerilla-style attacks), and the youths, therefore, had to use tactics which fragmentarily forced themselves into the other’s place (xix). By using surprise, therefore, they were able to create chaos for a time and leave before order was restored. This is the power that subcultures use to create space in ordered, and therefore hostile, environments.

The hobos who have traveled and travel across the country looking for work from the late nineteenth century to the present day constitute a subculture that, much like Dick Hebdige’s punks, is “alternatively dismissed, denounced and canonized” (2). The hobo is a member of an economically mobile and socially unstable subculture that has carved a space within the culture’s recognized and accepted places. The hobo—who is defined by the fact that he rides illegally on trains—is forever on the fringes of place. Never inside the train’s regimented system, he is always on the outside. But he is also defined by that of which he is not a part; although never counted by the authorities, hobos are dependent on the trains for their movement and could not exist without them. There is an intimate link between the machine itself and the hobo—a bond that is essential and unique to the hobo and his lifestyle.

While de Certeau explains that both the passenger and the objects outside the window were immobile and fixed objects, he makes the important observation that it is the railroad itself that is making noise:

There is a beating of the rails, a vibrato of the windowpanes—a sort of rubbing together of spaces at the vanishing points of their frontier. These junctions have no place. They indicate themselves by passing cries and momentary noises. These frontiers are illegible; they can only be heard as a single stream of sounds, so continuous is the tearing off that annihilates the points through which it passes. (113, italics mine)

It is the Iron Horse that cuts through the places—the towns, the valleys, the deserts—and at the “vanishing point of the frontier,” the places disappear at the point of contact. These places are illegible, annihilated and can only be heard and no longer seen. While the railroad’s speed and ubiquity has brought places in the country closer together (it has cut the time that it takes to get, for example, from Boston to Washington), spaces are still brought into being through the very act of the machine rumbling and screaming across the continent. The passenger, however, is unaware—and distant—as he sits in his seat, cushioned and protected within the place of the railroad car. The only sound that he hears is the vibrating of the window; he could put his hand on the pane and feel the rhythm or hear the click-clack, click-clack of the train on the tracks. In these places, there are only sounds. In space, however, there is noise. 3. Unlike the passive relationship between the passenger and the train, the hobo, who is physically present where the spaces rub together, is connected in a more corporal way.

Hobos, sitting in the corners of the open boxcar, are physically a part of that borderland where the frontier disappears. They are, therefore, in that space where there is no sound but only noise. Hebdidge writes that “subcultures represent ‘noise’ (as opposed to sound), interference in the orderly sequence,” and while passengers are culturally permitted to raise their voices a bit when ordering pretzels in the bar-car, hobos, trying to keep warm in sub-zero temperatures as the train races through the countryside, may yell, stamp their feet, and run around in the boxcar in order to keep alive (90). For example, Jim Tully, in his hobo memoir, Beggars of Life, writes of a hazardous trip that almost cost him his life: “The cold air numbed my muscles until a stupor fought to gain control of my brain . . . I pounded the roof of the car to revive the ebbing circulation of my blood. I shook my head violently, as a pugilist does to drive the effect of a grueling smash from his brain” (230). Unable to stop the train, Tully had to endure as much as he could. Since he was not in the place of the railroad car, however, he was able to take actions not permitted (or warranted) to passengers. Since the hobos cannot be heard above the roar of the engine or seen in the darkness of the night, they can use their voices to yell and hoot; they can laugh or curse; they can stomp around to stay warm or simply because they’re bored.

By stealing a ride, hobos are outside of history; there is no seat assigned, no money exchanged for a ticket, no knowledge that they are even there on the train and, therefore, they do not officially exist. And while the railroad engineers may suspect that the hobos are there, they do not count. When people exist in the spaces of society (and as a homeless wanderer participating in an illegal activity, the hobo fits this category), those who are connected to places will not recognize them. 4. When de Certeau, when examining the incarceration of a passenger in a railway car, correctly wrote that “history exists where there is a price to be paid” (113), he was probably aware that there are those who are outside of history and who cannot afford or do not wish to pay the price to “ride the cushions,” yet still take the train. Official history exists only in areas that can be seen; spaces of darkness need to be illuminated and forced into the accepted hegemonic discourse of the time by the culture’s regulators, for space is dangerous to the established order precisely because the actions taking place there are unseen and therefore cannot be regulated. As Michel Foucault showed when using the theory of the panopticon, there is much advantage in keeping people under the (illusory) constant gaze of the state rather than plunging subcultures in the dark where they can gather strength in secrecy. For in established places, people can be seen and therefore there is “a power through transparency, subjection through illumination” (Foucault 162). But what Jeremy Bentham did not realize when he revolutionized surveillance and the prison system, which Foucault is quick to point out, is that some subjects would resist this gaze and would seek to create spaces not monitored by cultural forces. Not everyone is passive, and “there would always be ways of slipping through their net” (162). 5. The hobo is not a passive figure and resists the gaze by stepping outside of history. While the passengers are always under the gaze of established authority as they sit within the place of the railroad car, the hobo exists in the space of noise and movement as the train cuts through the recognized places of the country. And while the distance between points has been diminished by the speed of the locomotive, there is still the moment of contact, the “rubbing of spaces” created by the train’s movement that is unobservable and outside of history. As the hobos hold on to the train for dear life at that moment of contact in this realm of chaotic “noise,” they become part of the Iron Horse. Unlike the everyday passenger who is cushioned and protected, the hobo is actually intimately intertwined with the machine. And, if de Certeau is correct and the machine is a producer of space, then so too are the hobos when, as my figures show, they becomes part of the inner workings of the train.

While the “machine is the premium mobile, the solitary god from which all action proceeds,” de Certeau could also be describing the hobos themselves as they becomes part of the machine that cuts through the landscape (113). One of the most dangerous ways of stealing a ride between stops and thus the one that hobo autobiographies brag about the most was “riding the rods.” Kenneth Allsop, who wrote Hard Travelin’: A Hobo and His History, described this perilous way of traveling:

Beneath the old boxcar—not on today’s streamlined models—the iron frame was underbraced by gunnels, or iron bars, running lengthwise eighteen inches below the belly of the car, leaving a space into which a reasonably slim hobo (and they were seldom fat) could sidle and so be borne, stretched flat on his back like a kipper on a grill, cradled between the thundering wheels and a few inches above the sleepers and spraying cinders. (159)

The hobos would find a piece of wood or board and make an improvised seat a few inches above the gravel. If the hobos fell asleep, or if they slipped, or if an angry engineer with a grudge threw a bolt under the car where it then became a lethal weapon to knock the hobos off their perches, certain death would follow. This position was extremely dangerous because the distance between the hobo and the machine was non-existent—arms and legs intertwined with bolts and steel. Drawings and photos corroborate this amalgamation. For example, the popular photo by A. J. Carrel Lucas clearly shows this intermingling of steel and flesh: the hobos are laying flat on their stomachs with the wind blowing fiercely in their faces (although somehow one of the ‘bos has his hat on!) (see figure 1). They are only inches away from the wheels of the train; their bodies become engulfed by the machine itself. The hobo closest to the viewer’s eye has his head strongly stuck out into the wind, his arm forming a sideways “L” with his palm flat on the steel and his elbow almost connected to the wheel. With his look of determination and forcefulness, he seems as if he is propelling the train forward; he is not being carried by the train, rather, he is moving with the train, urging it onward. While this is certainly a romantic reading, I would argue that numerous photos of hobos riding the rods substantiate my claim. As the photo from Jack London’s hobo autobiography The Road clearly shows, there is no protection from the elements and the hobo’s arm is literally a couple of inches from the rails (see figure 2). Any movement—either by him or the train—that separated him from the machine would mean certain death. Thus, as the machine enters the “disappearing frontier,” so too enters the hobo.

Figure 1

Figure 2

While “riding the rods” was the most dangerous thing hobos could do, any place on the train could be transformed into space by the hobo. It would take pages to account for all of the places that have been transformed into spaces by hobos. 6. A while they might have been arrested or suffer physical hardships if they were caught or if they slipped from their spaces, their intimate, physical connection to the train—the lack of distance between the flesh and the steel—showed that the ordered environment of the railroad car could be penetrated by those with the desire (and skill) to do so.

It is this ability to use their bodies to create space that locates the hobos’ source of subcultural freedom and power within the dominant culture’s regimented order. While de Certeau’s major thesis in The Practice of Everyday Life is that average, everyday people offer resistance within the constricting environments of society, the hobo, by intermingling with the train itself, goes one step further: By creating a space outside the gaze of authority and coupling himself with the machine that is creating space at the moment of contact in-between places, the hobo exists in a realm within which the everyday passenger, in the ordered environment of the railroad car, can never be included. The hobo’s power, therefore, exists when the train is in motion and breaking through the frontiers—when he is intimately connected to a force of such magnitude and strength. 7.

It is when hobos are physically and intimately connected to the train by their illegal riding that they have the most freedom and—even though death or maiming is just a slip away—control. The train is thousands of pounds strong and traveling at fast speeds; the hobo, if seen at all, is a blur. Unlike passenger number 42 commuting from Washington, D.C. to Pittsburg on “red-eye” express, the hobos, unseen and therefore outside history, have a certain control because they are invisible and part of the “noise” of the machine. Only when the whistle sounds and the engine dies in the terminal does the power of the hobo and the train disappear: “In the mobile world of the train station, the immobile machine suddenly seems monumental and almost incongruous in its mute, idol-like inertia, a sort of god-undone” (de Certeau 114). Back in a place that is regimented, ordered, and under surveillance, the hobo has to worry about being seen and, more importantly, about the consequences of being caught without a ticket in the train yard. With the metal god no longer spitting smoke and sparks, the hobos must untangle themselves from the machines and slink along the tracks until they can find a safe haven in the hidden jungles on the outskirts of town. The space that they create, therefore, is temporary and must be replicated every time they want to catch another ride.

The body, and the ability to control its visibility, is at the heart of the hobo’s subcultural power. An analysis of Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), a fictionalized, historical work about the Wilmington, North Carolina, race riot of 1898, might be useful to explore this unique power of the hobo as compared to a “normal” passenger who is subservient to rules and regulations of a particular society. One of the main characters, Dr. Miller, an educated man who had received favorable press and prestige in the Northeast and in Europe for his surgical operations, is returning to Wilmington to open up a hospital when he meets his former white mentor, the renowned Dr. Burns. A few hours into the trip, however, the conductor informs both parties that they would have to separate and that Miller would have to move into the “colored” car—for in the ordered environment of the railroad system, only some members of certain races can sit in particular cars. When the two object, the conductor warns, “I could simply switch this car off the next siding, transfer the white passengers to another, and leave you and your friend in possession until you were arrested and fined or imprisoned” (55). The law of surveillance and order cannot be bucked and Miller submits to the rules and regulations of the railroad company (which are the rules and regulations of the larger State of Virginia); thus he moves to the car that is designated for him.

After being thrown out of the “Whites Only” railroad car and forced into the colored section, Miller looks out the window, and, with both shock and sadness, he spots Josh Green, a large African American man who had snuck aboard and hidden himself on the train.

As the train came to a standstill, a huge negro, covered thickly with dust, crawled off one of the rear trucks unobserved, and ran round the rear end of the car to a watering-trough by a neighboring well . . . He threw himself down by the trough, drank long and deep, and plunging his head into the water, shook himself like a wet dog, and crept back furtively to his dangerous perch. (59)

Josh Green, however, an uneducated man of quick temper and fearless action who had been employed as a dock-worker for Miller’s father, is in this instance not subject to the same laws as Dr. Miller. Stealing a ride and avoiding the gaze of the agents of the law, he is not under the power of the law in the same way as Miller, who was forced to surrender to the white conductor his own personal dignity. And while Miller—who spots Josh from his seat in the train—passes judgment on the dirty hobo and concludes, “Blessed are the meek . . . for they shall inherit the earth” (62), Josh was, however, being more active and resistant to the oppressive powers than the doctor who passively followed the rules that governed him. While Miller calls Josh meek, it was this dusty, parched hobo who (in a place—the railroad car—that was race-sensitive) was able to remain unobserved and uncounted while the train was in motion. He was able to create a space that allowed him to ride “in-between” the law and, therefore, outside of history. It was a dangerous space, one that caused Josh to exclaim, “I kind er ‘lowed I was gone a dozen times, ez it wuz” (62), but it allowed him to fulfill his goals of being unobserved and getting to the place where he wanted to go. Due to his willingness to travel in-between and, therefore, place himself outside of the law, Josh was able to travel without money and with his personal dignity by creating his own particular space on the train.

This is the power of subculture. John Fiske, in Television Culture, states that “there is a power in resisting power, there is a power in maintaining one’s social identity in opposition to that proposed by the dominant ideology, there is a power in asserting one’s own subcultural values against the dominant ones” (19). It is the power of a subordinated class of people, who, because of their (lack of) social position, can be—for a time at least—outside the reach of the law. The passenger can receive pleasure from the lack of effort it takes to be a controlled subject in the railroad car because “pleasure results from the production of meanings of the world and the self that are felt to serve the interests of the reader” (Fiske 19). Hobos, on the other hand, once they define themselves as hobos, can receive pleasure from the freedom that exists when poaching from the dominant culture. It is a fleeting power that exists mainly when the train is in motion: when they are in the act of stealing from the larger cultures, when they are uncounted and outside history, when flesh and steel become one, and spaces emerge from places. Only then does the subversive power of the hobo manifest itself. It is a power that exerts itself only in moments—“for what it wins it cannot keep” (de Certeau 37)—and this power continually succumbs to the hegemonic forces of the larger culture. Regardless, though, it is a power that shows the cracks—spaces—that can be created by a subordinated subculture.


1. Who exactly is a hobo? This is a question that has been debated (both in academic circles and also around the jungle campfires). The traditional definition is as follows: a “hobo” is a migratory worker while the “tramp” is a migratory non-worker and the “bum” is a non-migratory non-worker. Obviously, though, these definitions bleed into each other: As most hobo autobiographies attest, many who considered themselves “hobos” at one time or another were forced to beg on the road (so according to this strict definition, they should then be considered “tramps”), and many times they spent long stretches in cities (thus they could be considered “bums”). In any event, everyone would agree that in order to be a hobo, you must beat your way by train. There has also been debate about whether or not there is a current hobo population. While the scene has certainly changed since the first ‘bo hopped a train after the Golden Spike was knocked into the ground at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869, men and women continue to hop trains in the twenty-first century. For a well documented and authoritative cultural history of the hobo, particularly in terms of the racializing and gendering of the term, see Todd DePastino’s Citizen Hobo. For a great discussion of the Hobo in terms of his economic and cultural force in the Midwest from 1880-1930, see Frank Higbie’s Indispensable Outcasts. See also Eddy Joe Cotton’s Hobo and Jessica Hahn’s Transient Ways for two perspectives on the present day rail-riding community.

click here to return to your place in the article

2. This, of course, is a highly complex set of negotiations and dealings involving class, race, and gender ideologies. While Stephen Ambrose understands the building of the line and the Big Four who were predominately involved in the building process in a mostly positive light, see John Robinson’s book The Octopus: A History of the Construction, Conspiracies, Extortions, Robberies, and Villainous Acts of Subsidized Railroads for a scathing look at how the Big Four ruined California. See also Frank Norris’s The Octopus, the first novel in his Epic of the Wheat trilogy, which is a fascinating and insightful portrayal of the power that the railroad had over farmers.

click here to return to your place in the article

3. For example, in a recent luxury car commercial, a sleek, shiny car is placed in the middle of a loud, chaotic construction sight. In the first frame, the windows to the car are down, and the noise of the mechanical world is grating and disturbing. But then, with the flick of a switch, the window of the car goes up. Suddenly, the noise is gone, and there is only the sound of low classical music on the car stereo. The noise belonged to the uncivilized and unsafe construction world (space); the sound belonged to the world of the (high-priced) civilized and ordered car environment (place).

click here to return to your place in the article

4. This does not mean that the hobo is necessarily alone. While many hobos that I have interviewed enjoy traveling alone, most do travel in pairs or in small groups. Jessica Hahn, for example, who did travel and squat alone on occasion in the 1990s, usually did have a traveling companion when “catching out” and traveling across the United States. This was done, she explained, for both safety issues as well as camaraderie. When hobos “disappear,” they rely on each other for food, information, protection, and comfort. As Todd DePastino astutely points out in Citizen Hobo, “If hoboing was, to a degree, an individually chosen strategy for minimizing wage dependency and insulating oneself against exploitation then the success of this strategy hinged on informal networks that made hoboing a collective enterprise as well” (69). If there were not other individuals forming these loose webs of interaction on the fringes of place, then the lone hobo would have an extremely hard time surviving and making it down the line. The key, however, is to keep these interactions out of sight from those who have the power to regulate the bodies of these illegal train riders.

click here to return to your place in the article

5. Ted Grossardt, in his article, “Harvest(ing) Hoboes: The Production of Labor Organization through the Wheat Harvest” explains the result of what happens when illegal bodies have the ability to disappear: “When the activities of a mobile group of people are no longer observable and thus cannot be fully known, those people become potentially omnipresent to the fixed observer. The observer suddenly faces the possibility of being the observed” (285). Large groups of mostly single men traveling unseen throughout the country produces much anxiety in those who are rooted to their places. While passive bodies are easy to control, active bodies who use their invisibility for their own subcultural pleasure are quickly deemed dangerous and laws (both vigilante and state sponsored) are produced and enforced. Hobos, therefore, must continue to stay hidden from those who wish to identify and regulate them.

click here to return to your place in the article

6. Kenneth Allsop, who was one of the first to write extensively about the hobo figure, writes of some of the spaces: “He rode on the iron plate, yet another toehold in the ‘guts,’ or lower berth, of a steam car. He rode the ‘death woods,’ the couplings themselves—the whipple trees or swingletrees—and the bumpers. He burrowed in the coal of the engineer tender. He rode among the sheep and cattle of the livestock cars. He rode in open gondolas piled with granite. He rode on the top deck, the boardwalk along the center of boxcars, and, if that was loaded in harvest time, he rode on the garb irons and the ladder on the side. He rode ‘possum belly on the tool or supply box under a car. He rode the toe path, the narrow looking platform bolted on the walls of some rattlers. He rode the footrail at the rear end of the tankers. He even rode, if desperate to be on his way, under the headlight on the pilot or cowcatcher, the grilled scoop that projected afore the front wheels to clear obstructions from the line” (160).

click here to return to your place in the article

7. Indeed, there is a distinct power to a moving train unlike anything else. When I went to the National Hobo convention in Britt, Iowa, I stayed in the jungle that was located a few hundred yards from the railroad tracks. Sometime early in the morning, I woke up to the sound of the train roaring past my tent. In my confusion, I woke up startled, and because the sound was so loud and powerful, I was convinced that the train was soon to bear down upon me. Fumbling out of my tent, I crawled out on my hands and knees and looked up at this machine roaring past me—it was, to use an overused term, awesome. Its strength, its muscle, its loudness, its beauty was magnificent. Gaining my senses, I looked around and saw a few of the older hobos staring at the machine as well. Some waved, some whooped, some just stared but all, it seemed to me, were in wonderment of the train.

click here to return to your place in the article

Works Cited

Allsop, Kenneth. Hard Travellin’: The Hobo and His History. New York: The New American Library, 1967.

Ambrose, Stephen. Nothing in the World Like It. New York: Touchstone, 2000.

Chesnutt, Charles. The Marrow of Tradition. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.

Cotton, Eddy Joe. Hobo. New York: Harmony, 2002.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

DePastino, Todd. Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

Fiske, John. Television Culture. New York: Methuen Drama, 1988.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

Grossardt, Ted. “Harvest(ing) Hoboes: The Production of Labor Organization through the Wheat Harvest.” Agricultural History 2 (1996): 283-302.

Hahn, Jessica. Transient Ways. Hawaii: Passing Through Publications, 1996.

Higbie, Frank Tobias. Indispensible Outcasts: Hobo Workers and Community in the American Midwest, 1830-1930. Illinois: U of Illinois P, 2003.

Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge, 1979.

Norris, Frank. The Octopus. New York: Penguin Books, Reissue Edition, 1994.

Robinson, John. The Octopus: A History of the Construction, Conspiracies, Extortions, Robberies, and Villainous Acts of Subsidized Railroads. United Kingdom: Ayer Co. Pub., 1981.

Tully, Jim. Beggars of Life. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1924.

Back to Top

© 2005 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture