From the spread of railroads in the 1870s until the suburbanization of American life in the 1960s, millions of Americans took to the rails.
Although boxcar life acquired a romantic whiff of freedom, it was a difficult, dangerous life, and illegally riding train cars had a practical purpose: Most hoboes were itinerant workers, traveling until they found the next job at a mill or in a field.
Most hoboes were men, although an estimated 5%, including Cora D. Harvey, who became secretary of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, were women. Some, like Railroad Bill and Hobo John, became legends, inspiring a genre of magazine article, books and songs.
Hoboes were a large enough class of people that their plight became wrapped in wider labor struggles in the decades before World War Two. Unions, like the Industrial Workers of the World, organized them. The first popular recording of the hobo anthem “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was made by a former IWW activist named Harry McClintock. The community even had a newspaper, Hobo News, published by James Eads How, the heir to a railroad fortune who became a socialist and himself lived as penniless itinerant.
There are different theories about the origin of that word, according to Iain McIntyre, editor of On the Fly! Hobo Literature and Songs, 1879-1941. One is that it comes from the Latin Homo bonus, or “good man.” It could also have come from the salutation “Ho, boy!” or the designation of farm laborers at “hoe boys.”
I picked up McIntyre’s completely fascinating anthology after an artist from Moundsville, John Mowder, invited me to his home in Pittsburgh to show me a series of paintings he’s working on to celebrate his cherished 1950s childhood. “After growing up there, I could go anywhere in the world,” he says. “I had a small town in my pocket.”
In the painting featured here, John is bringing an ear of corn to the town’s hobo camp. By that time, cars were pushing railroads into decline, and the hobo community dwindling.
But for a number of men, the lifestyle, even if often hard and lonely, provided community and support.
One was Mowder’s uncle, also named John.
He had served in World War Two, was part of a troupe of veterans who helped each other as they wrestled with post-traumatic stress disorder from the anguish and suffering of the war. In the 1950s, they often hung out in Moundsville, Mowder says, and he ran errands for them.
“Uncle John lived by himself,” Mowder told me. “He drank too much, but he was a nice man, and his friends were nice. They took care of each other. They didn’t have a real diagnosis for PTSD back then, so this was how they coped.”
John W. Miller