Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Impressions of a Hobo ...

Today's post is an excerpt from a very cool old essay called, "Impressions of a Hobo," written by a man named George Butler, and published in the September 1921 issue of a long-vanished journal called The Pacific Review. Butler's story is an evocative reminiscence of traveling from Yakima to Montana in 1915 to work as a laborer on the Milwaukee Road, hopping freight tains much of the way there and back:
That night at midnight I walked down a hill to the Milwaukee yards. It was pitch dark. A long freight pulled in; it proved to be a string of empties bound for Seattle. I climbed in a side door, lit a match, looked the floor over and sat down in a corner. I lit my pipe and smoked quietly while waiting for the engine to whistle the "highball." The con went by checking up his cars. He pulled the side door open that I had taken pains to shut. He stuck his head in the doorway and peered into the corners as he flashed his lantern. Finally the light rested on me.

"Hey there! What you riding on?"

I got up rather unconcerned; I knew that I would get out of town even if he put me off. He looked at my card and pulled the door shut, yelling "Empty," as he hit the door with his stick.

In a few minutes the engine whistled the "highball," a long and a short whistle that means "All hoboes aboard." The steam tightened, one succession of bumps was telegraphed down the string of empties, then no noise except the clicking of the rails, the rattling of the cars, and the steady puff of the engines. I lay curled up in the corner and thought of the job that I had left, of Butte, of my destination. I felt lonely. As far as I knew I was the only passenger on the entire freight.

After what seemed like a couple of hours she slowed down and stopped. I was getting cold by this time so I got out. I was in Deer Lodge. In about an hour she started out again and I held her down all day and night getting off only at division points for meals. I found that there were between fifteen and twenty hoboes scattered about various parts of the train. Many had been on the train ever since she left St. Paul. Most of them were going to Washington to harvest the fruit and grain crops.

Soon I was traveling through the picturesque route that the Milwaukee boasts of. The hobo gets a better chance to appreciate the beauty of the route than the man that travels on the limited. We were all sitting in the doorway, and looking over the freight I could see feet hanging out of almost every boxcar.

At a stop a shack went by and seeing us all hanging out of the side doors yelled, "What the hell do you fellows think this is—an open air picnic?"

We grinned and shut the doors, but as soon as she started the doors would invariably be opened again.


  1. Oh man... I'd like to travel across the Milwaukee Road like that just once.

  2. It sucks to have been born too late, doesn't it? :)

  3. I'm not sure of 1915 conditions but dont long too much for the good old days. Being broke-helpless-and hopeless is not the way to live. It was that way in the 1930s and no "safety" net welfare etc. either.Hobos are romanticised beyond reason but, for sure, some had the temperment to enjoy it.

  4. Yep, it's easy to romanticize lives that are different from our own, no matter what they are ... or how good.

    I'll confess to hopping a couple of freight trains back when I considerably younger ... and though I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything, those few days were more than enough to convince me that freight-hopping wasn't a good long-term lifestyle!