Always, there were the trains. Whistles in the night; the sharp, insistent whining of brakes; the vibration at the country grade crossing as a highballing freight passed by: all hinted at goings and comings, arrivals and departures, denied to us as children.
Fascinated by the trains and intrigued by everything surrounding them, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, to see where locomotives lived. From the bridges leading into Kansas City, I admired the terminals and rail yards filled with long lines of cars and chubby cabooses. Always, I wondered at the mysterious letters painted on tankers and boxcars alike: ATSF, RI, C&NW.
Even the tracks provided entertainment. Encouraging one another, my friends and I laid on the ground, pressing our ears to cold, hard rails in hopes of feeling the rumble of an approaching train.
Sometimes, pennies in hand, in thrall to darkly superstitious fears, we discussed whether we — uninhibited eight-year-olds — might derail the afternoon freight by placing a coin on the rails.
When summer arrived, with its long days and intoxicating freedom from school, we grabbed our bikes and flew off down the streets, heedless of our mothers’ frail and ineffectual pleadings: “Don’t go to the park! If you go to the park, stay away from the tracks! If you have to walk the tracks, don’t walk the trestle.”
Of course we walked the trestle as soon as we arrived: tossing aside bicycles, scrambling up the embankment, scraping knees, and daring one another to traverse its length before the next train arrived.
At my grandparents’ house, trains were different: less exciting, but equally compelling. Lacking trestles, fancy streamliners, or high-balling freights, we took our amusement from the short, slow chains of hopper or box cars that passed behind the house, rolling our eyes at yet another parental warning: “Whatever you do, don’t cross the tracks.”
We knew why they warned, and we knew the caution really wasn’t necessary. We’d met some of the men who stayed at the hobo camps tucked into fields and ditches on the other side of the tracks, both in our wanderings and when they arrived at the back doors of our homes, seeking food or work. Quiet and generally polite, they seemed more tired than threatening, and always were grateful for the water and food that was offered. In truth, their Hobo Code of Ethics, if adhered to, might go some distance toward reordering our own, disordered society.
During the Great Depression, hobo camps were common. Some became so well-integrated into the surrounding community that towns have memorialized them.
In Fairmont, Minnesota, two wooden trestle bridges belonging to the Milwaukee and Chicago & North Western lines sheltered a camp from the 1920s through the 1950s. According to a sign at the location:
The Fairmont Hobo Camp was conveniently located on a major westbound rail line, and may have sheltered over ten thousand hobos during these years. The hobo jungle, or bum camp, as some people called it, featured a secluded spot near town with good fishing in the channel and a fresh water artesian well bubbling up from the ground.
An eye witness from the early 1950s remembered the camp site with five or six men standing around, several smoldering campfires, and four or five crude, tin-roofed shelters thrown together using scrap lumber and cardboard.
When it was time to move on, the men would make their way up the ravine’s gently rising runway to track level, where they’d scoot out and hop on the freight cars. We mark this site in remembrance of the hobos who stopped here to rest, and the people of Fairmont who helped them with odd jobs and food.
The mention of bums in the Fairmont sign is a reminder that tramps and bums also were part of that era’s rail camps. Differences among the groups were real, although sorting them out could be complicated for outsiders. According to blues musician Seasick Steve:
A hobo is someone who moves around looking for work; a tramp is someone who moves around and doesn’t work; and a bum is someone who doesn’t move and doesn’t work.
Before one of the nation’s better-known bums, Charles Greer (affectionately nicknamed Charlie the Mole) died in New Orleans in 1961, he provided his own definition of the difference between a tramp, a hobo and a bum:
A tramp is a migratory worker. A hobo is a migratory non-worker. And a bum is a non-migratory non-worker.
Despite reversing the meanings of “tramp” and “hobo,” Charlie clearly was a bum: at least, for a time. He didn’t work, and he stayed in New Orleans. At his death, newspapers around the country reported that:
[Charlie] was one of the principle builders of the Hotel de Bastille, and lived in it himself. The hotel was a subterranean abode for panhandlers and tramps under the old New Orleans criminal courts building.
Charlie and his friends tapped the water lines, hot and cold, and the electric cables to the municipal building, to give their abode the comforts of home. They even had steam heat. The “King of the Hoboes” had a private apartment befitting his status.
They lived under the feet of policemen for some time until a dozen years ago, when someone discovered the hotel. Charlie was hauled out, blinking and sheepish. He was promptly dubbed “The Mole,” and became something of a local character. The criminal courts building was demolished to make room for a modern structure, and the honeycomb hotel beneath it was filled in.
At some point after the eviction, Charlie seems to have relinguished his claim to bumhood. He took on work: traveling every summer to New Jersey, where he cut grass and served as handyman for a nudist colony.
Eventually, everything changes. Charlie the Mole takes a job, automobile travel replaces the train, and adults so effectively hobble children they hardly can walk to school, let alone walk a trestle.
But for inveterate railfans, kids-at-heart, nature lovers on a limited budget, or families with limited time, that “other side of the tracks” that served the hobos so well still has something to offer.
During my recent travels through Arkansas, I found roads and rail lines intersecting at every turn. It proved as easy to walk beside the tracks as to drive the roads, and along those tracks the world revealed itself to be beautifully diverse.
Next to a rail siding, an old brick and stone building eased into the earth, its windows and doors framing even more goldenrod.Around its walls and within its emptied rooms, white heath aster (Symphyotrichum spp.) clambered and climbed,
Supervising all the activity was an unusual character who might have worked or worried himself into a prematurely white tail: although the presence of white squirrels in Arkansas suggests genetics is the more likely answer.
But as children and hobos well know, the world can be generous: revealing herself to those willing to lay an ear to the rails, dare the trestles of life, or cross to the other side of the tracks. I’ll always be happy to oblige.