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Updated on October 4, 2018

There have always been ambivalent feelings about the American hobo. Both a romanticized figment of the country's imagination and an integral part of American society, the hobo established its own unique culture. The word "hobo" was first coined in the 1800's when after the Civil War a depressed economy and hard times had people taking to the rails in search of work and a better life. Back then they were called "hoe boys" carrying a hoe and shovel with them in the hopes of getting farm work. As time when on, the number of hobos acted as an economic indicator. When times were bad, men (and boys) would become riders of the rails.


"The gentlemen of the road" experienced their Golden Age with the onset of the Great Depression which started on BlackTuesday, October 29, 1929. It is believed that at one time there were over a million and a half hobos riding the freights, many displaced white collar workers. By the turn of the 20th century, railroads had grown and stretched from the industrialized east to the unsettled west offering opportunity to the traveler seeking a paycheck.

The hobo lifestyle remained outside of mainstream society. They developed a cultural uniqueness and were seen not only as jobless men but as an icon of freedom in what was then a structured American society. Hobos were essential to the economic and industrial landscape of that time. They would fill a necessary role in the labor force as reserves and would easily adapt to the ever changing circumstances. When they were no longer needed they would hop the trains and move on.

Eventually the economy began to recover and the railroads consolidated and became more streamlined. Trains made longer hauls without stopping and the employment gap was filled by more permanent workers. For the hobo, it signalled the end of an era. For America, the idealized image of the carefree train rider lives on.


During the greatest heyday of hobo history, hobo "jungles" sprang up along the railroad tracks. These were transient shanty towns where hobos could set up tents and build campfires for cooking. Everyone would bring whatever food they had and meals were prepared and shared. The hobo jungles were generally accepted by the rest of the population as long as they stayed on the outskirts of towns and cities. It was here that the traveller would rest and enjoy community before setting off to hop the next train.


American hobos developed their own system of symbols to communicate with one another. Sometimes called the secret language of the hobos, the symbols were used to let others know what lies ahead. With chalk, coal or paint, travellers would scratch warnings and information on walls, posts, fences and sidewalks. Some would point to friendly camping areas or warn of barking dogs. It was just another way the "knights of the railways" would look out for one another. Here is a link to some common hobo symbols -


Like the symbols, hobos created their own set of terms they all understood. It was part of their individual culture yet some of the terms carried on into mainstream society. Here are some examples -

HOTSHOT - a train with high priority over other traffic

BULL - railroad security man

SNAKE - railroad switchman

POWER - the engines that power the train

REEFER - refridgerated boxcar

BINDLE STIFF - a hobo who carries a bundle (usually on a stick) with personal possessions

YEGGS - burglars or criminals

CRUMBS - lice

CATCH OUT - to hop a freight train

Here's a link to a complete list of hobo terminology -


Though most hobos were not artistically trained, they managed to produce both items of whimsy and usefulness. Referred to in this day as folk art or tramp art, hobos would take what society discarded and turn it into art. Often this was done by whittling scraps of wood into toy trains or simple whistles. Because they travelled a lot and did not stay in one place for very long, much of the art work they left behind is undocumented. Yet collectors still covet the serviceable mug made from a tin can or the bit of art work left on the side of a fruit crate.


As with all music, hobo music reflected the times and their experiences as freight hoppers. Their lifestyle was intertwined with folk song and other American roots music. But also present was an awareness of the labor movement and social activism. The era spawned leftwing musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter. Of course hundreds of songs have been written and performed about the hobo culture. Here is a list of just some of the songs written about hobos.


It was common in the hobo jungles to always have a huge pot of boiling water over the campfire. Weary travellers would bring what they had - a few potatoes, carrots, herbs and meat acquired in the course of the day. All would be added to the pot and a nutritious stew resulted. Corn bread was also a popular staple and was made in a cast iron pan. Beans of all kinds were plentiful and were eaten alone or mixed in soup or stew.


Jack Black -

Woody Guthrie

Burl Ives

Harry McClintock -

Jack London

Jack Kerouac

Joe Hill -

Louis L'Amour

Robert Mitchum

John Steinbeck

George Orwell

Jack Dempsey

James Michener

Jim Tully -

W.H. Davies

Rod McKuen

There are more, of course. Some hoboed for a short period of their lives. Others adapted and adopted the lifestyle.


Though nothing compares to the cultural era of the 1930s hobo existence, modern day hobos still ride the rails. The glory days of freight trains has long passed in the American landscape but there still remains a loyal lot of hobo travellers whose passion is to move on. They wait for the trains to slow down then hop into empty cars. They stop for short periods to work in fields such as carpentry, farm work and other jobs. They design crafts and arts and sell them from town to town. It is a dangerous lifestyle and the hobo way is not for everyone.


HOBO - Hop trains and travel for work.

TRAMP - Travel not necessarily by train. Look for work or may panhandle.

BUM - Bums rarely travel and don't work. They beg.


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