Hopping Freight Train

Hopping Freights

During the time of The Great Depression a huge number of people, especially young men, left home to find employment. Some struck out for the highways to hitchhike while others took advantage of another mode of transportation, and that was known as “hopping a freight” or “riding the rails”. This was a term used by those who would sneak aboard a railroad car to get from one place to another. Very few people had money to pay to ride a train and yet for many people it was imperative to find work to be able to survive. The preferred destination for most people looking for employment was to head west where they hoped to find jobs gathering in the harvests and the trains were the best mode of transportation.

It was during such a time as this when my father-in-law, along with his brother took up “hopping freights” out of Missouri and headed west. I refer to my father-in-law as Grandpa because this is what my children call him. This is his story:

“There was just no work to be had in northeast Missouri,” said Grandpa when I questioned him as to why he decided to hop a freight and leave the only home he had ever known when he was just nineteen years old.

“It was September of 1936,” he said as he leaned back in his chair and began to recall that period of time in his life.

“After the banks failed back in ’29 we were in the depression and nobody had money to pay anyone so jobs were hard to find. My brother, Carl, decided to go look for work with me. Carl’s wife had died with pneumonia fever not long before and he had a baby to care for and like the rest of us, he had no money either. As much as he hated to, he left his little two-year-old, Betty Jean, with our Mom so we could go look for work. We thought we could go out west and make enough money to help support the family because otherwise, we were just extra mouths to feed for our folks who were also struggling like everyone else to make ends meet during the depression.

So, one morning Carl and I just up and left Bible Grove and went to the nearest train station in Baring and hopped a Santa Fe freight train to Kansas City. All we took with us was a blanket apiece and we each had a suitcase with a few clothes in it.”

As I listened to Grandpa about his experience, I was intrigued with the idea that at nineteen years of age he and his older brother would just take off and head west with no money nor any assurance of a job when he got out there. I wondered what his mother thought about him leaving. Hopping freights could be dangerous. However, The Great Depression was upon America and this scenario was not unusual to many families during that time.

Grandpa continued, “There were lots of people riding the rails. Mostly young men but sometimes there were families who traveled together too, just trying to get to where there was work.”

“Railroad companies tried to discourage non paying riders but some companies just gave up and looked the other way when people hopped aboard the freight cars because there were so many. One time I counted 95 people that were visible on the train I was riding but then we passed another train going the other way and I counted 115 on that one and those were just the ones that I could see from where I was riding. No telling how many were inside some of those cars. I guess with that many people it would be hard for the railroad companies to chase them all off their trains,” Grandpa said decidedly.

“We had to change trains fairly often and look for other boxcars to ride in and we had to be careful because in some places the railroad lines hired “dicks” or “bulls” whose job it was to keep nonpaying riders off the trains. We soon learned how to evade them though and we’d wait outside the town a short distance but then the trick was to catch the train “on the fly”.

“What does that mean?” I questioned.

“Well, we had to run along side of the train while it was moving and gaining speed, grab hold, and jump into a boxcar.”

“That was dangerous!” I said to Grandpa. “I read where some of those people missed the boxcar and lost a leg or their lives trying to hop a freight.”

“Awww you get the hang of it.” Grandpa replied just shrugging it off. “But I s’pose you could get hurt alright if you weren’t careful.

One time we were running to catch one on the fly and Carl had thrown his suitcase on and jumped on himself. He looked around and didn’t see me so he jumped back off. He didn’t know that I hadn’t been able to catch the same car but I had gotten on the train. By the time I realized Carl had jumped back off, the train was going too fast for me to jump back off.

We had made us a pact before we ever started out on our journey that if we got separated that one would wait for the other at the next train station, so that’s just what I did. I got off at the next station and before long here came Carl walking down the road. He had hitched a ride with someone in a truck and found me waiting at the next station.”

“We found out that hopping freights was a hard life and sure not the most comfortable way to travel but Carl and I were taught by our parents to endure adversity and to be hard workers. We thought sure we’d find something when we got further west.”

“Did you find work out there?” I asked as I continued questioning Grandpa about his freight hopping days.

“Sure did.” Grandpa replied matter-of-factly.

“We picked cotton for awhile and let me tell you, that’s hard work! We didn’t do that for long. We looked for something else because we knew we couldn’t pick enough cotton to make enough money. That place, and others like it, had a little store nearby for workers to buy needed items but they cost more than they should. They would get people to where they owed the store and then they couldn’t leave, they were trapped in some back breaking job, trying to pay off their debt.”

As Grandpa talked about this, I thought about that old song by Tennessee Ernie Ford with the line, “St. Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store”.

“So where did you work?” I asked.

Grandpa paused a moment and then continued, “Well, one day we found ourselves near a trucking company and we were inquiring about employment when a man came up and said, “You boys know anything about concrete?”

“We told him that we did and he hired us right there on the spot. We poured a concrete dock and it was the best pay we made on the whole trip but the job only lasted two weeks. The owner hated to let us go but he didn’t have anymore work for us.”

“What happened then?” I asked.

“We hopped another freight and headed on to Phoenix. We met a baker there and he gave us a job at his bakery. Didn’t pay a whole lot but we could eat all the baked goods we wanted. I even put on some weight while I worked there. We had made enough money on the concrete job that we could rent a room and didn’t have to sleep in a hobo camp, like the last one where the roof fell in.”

“The roof fell in?” I laughed.

“Yeah I never saw anybody move so fast as the boy that rigged that shack together with slats. I guess he knew what shape it was in but I wasn’t that quick and the roof caught me under it but it didn’t hurt me any.”

I tried to imagine Grandpa stuck under a pile of slats as I asked,

“Did you go any further west?” I questioned.

“Well, we did go on out to San Diego and see our sister, Ethel. We paid a guy some gas money to take us out there so we could see her. After that, we didn’t have any money left because we spent in on the gas so I hocked my watch so we could have something to eat.”

“What happened next?” I asked as I listened to Grandpa’s story.

“Well, Carl was so homesick for Betty Jean that he was nearly physically sick too and he wanted to go home in the worst way. I didn’t want to stay out there by myself so we hopped a freight and hightailed it for home.”

“It was getting cold too,.” Grandpa said. “We’d been gone about four months and it was January of 1937. At one point we were looking for a boxcar to ride but the railroad dick ran us out of the yard and all we could see to get on was tankers so we just climbed on a tanker thinking we could get to a boxcar somewhere later by climbing the ladders and getting to other cars. Well, we didn’t see anything but tankers so we just rode on that tanker for quite a ways. There wasn’t anything but a rail to hold on to. I was getting so tired and sleepy that I was afraid I might doze off so I took my belt and ran it through the rail that was about waist high to hold me on in case I fell asleep and let go.”

“You’re kidding!” I exclaimed as I thought that was pretty scary. “How long did you have to do that?”

“Quite a ways and then some guy came along and told us there was a box car way in the back next to the caboose. We were sure glad to hear that and get inside that boxcar, let me tell you, I thought I’d never get warm again.”

Grandpa continued, “Somewhere in Oklahoma we hit an ice storm and it was really cold. There were two couples riding with us at that time. One of the women was obviously going to have a baby soon and the other couple had a little girl. The couple with the little girl was trying to get to their family in Tennessee. They didn’t even have coats or a blanket so we threw off a blanket to them for the little girl and said we’d be on down the line and told them where we’d be. When we got to the place we’d told them we’d be, they left that blanket for us before they headed on south to Tennessee.”

As I listened to Grandpa, I thought he still looked concerned about that little girl after all these years.

“Did you run into any trouble on the trip?” I asked.

“Oh most people just try to help each other out if they can but there’s always some bad people everywhere you go.” He said.

“I guess the worst thing that happened to me was somebody tried to run over me.” Grandpa stated flatly.

“What? Why would anyone do that?” I asked.

“Just pure meanness I guess,” Grandpa shook his head. “Carl and I were walking along an overpass trying to hitch a ride out of St. Louis on home, and this car just came right over and knocked me down and ground the side of my face in the dirt and cinders. It knocked Carl’s suitcase out of his hand and he barely caught it teetering over the edge of that overpass. I lost my cap. Never did find it. I was a mess. I still got cinders in my head.” Grandpa bent his head over to show me. “The doctor took out a whole handful but I guess he missed some.”

“He missed some alright,” I said as I saw the purple spots on his head. “Now you have little souvenirs from your freight hopping days,” I laughed.

“Were you glad to get home?” I asked.

“Oh, were we ever!” Grandpa said, “And Carl was sure one happy man to see Betty Jean.”

“What did you learn from your experience?” I asked.

Grandpa laughed, “I learned that there’s no place like home and that I didn’t want anymore of hopping freights!”

Millard Blaine’s “Hopping Freights” is his story as he told it to me.

~ Pamela Perry Blaine ~
© February 9, 2007

About Pamela:  She enjoys writing, music, and country living.  She writes"Pam's Corner" for the local newspaper and many of her writings have been published on the internet as well as in several books.

Pam says, "I have loved music and writing ever since I can remember. I play piano at church and I'm an avid reader. One of my goals is to be able to write for my children and grandchildren so special memories will not be forgotten."  She has a CD entitled "I'll Walk You Home".  If you would like one, they are available by freewill donation.  More information as well as a clip from the CD is on her website at http://blaines.us/PamyPlace.htm

[ By: Pamela Perry Blaine, Copyright © 2007 (pamyblaine@blaines.us) -- from Pamela Perry Blaine ]


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