The Myth of the Hobo

The hobo is one of the most enduring myths of the railroad.

A hobo is someone who travels looking for work, and according to Merriam-Webster, the word first appeared in 1888. The first hobos probably emerged in the years after the Civil War.

“The hobo is perpetually travelling long distances, not because he has to go anywhere particularly, but because he has to get out of somewhere else,” an article in Everybody’s Magazine read. “Under pressure of extreme necessity he walks; as a rule, whether he has a short journey in view or whether he intends to cross the entire continent, he goes by train.

“How he does this is interesting,” the author noted. “He pays no fares at all; unlike people who do, he does not travel from station to station, but joins trains after they have left one depot and before they have arrived at another. He travels on all parts of the trains except inside the passenger coaches.”

A hobo is different from a tramp or a bum.

“A hobo is an honest man, temporarily embarrassed financially, who finds it necessary to travel in order to find work,” The Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1913 quoted H. B. Kenny, conductor of the International Workers’ Union of America, as saying.

“And a tramp is nothing but a guy who roams around, won’t work and lives by begging, while a bum is just a bum sets around the saloons and the curbs and hasn’t got ambition or nerve enough to tote a grip,” The Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1913 quoted C.W. Trenary, warden of the union, as saying.

While hoboing might seem like fun, it was in fact dangerous. Tens of thousands of hobos were killed or injured, and railroad discouraged the practice.

“Our chief objection to the presence of hoboes on our trains is the great danger to life and limb,” a railroad inspector wrote in The Daily News-Journal of Murfreesboro, Tenn., in 1932.

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About Todd DeFeo 343 Articles
Todd DeFeo loves to travel anywhere, anytime, taking pictures and notes. An award-winning reporter, Todd revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He is owner of The DeFeo Groupe and also edits Express Telegraph and The Travel Trolley.