act of surreptitiously boarding and riding a railroad freight car

Freighthopping is the practice of illegally riding freight trains.


  • Railroading in those years was very dangerous for train and engine crews, but incomparably more so for hoboes. Besides hunger and cold, the hobo was confronted with a maze of perils. Death laid in wait for him at every turn. The hobo might dash his brains out or be cut to pieces while jumping on or off a rapidly moving train; he might fall from the top of a swaying box-car or be swept off by a low bridge of whose presence he was unaware; he might have his head torn off by a car or railroad structure that was not "in the clear"; he might be crushed between telescoping cars or mangled in wrecks. Broken bodies of hoboes were constantly picked up along the railroad right-of-way, and hurried off to nameless graves in local Potters' Fields.
Experienced hoboes, wise to the ways of the road, like veteran soldiers in war, were able to shield themselves somewhat form the thickly-strewn hazards. But green hoboes, "gay cats," walked into these dangers blindly and were mowed down in the hundreds. The latter exposed themselves to disaster especially in their frantic efforts to hide from trainmen and bulls.
  • I could see men of all colors bouncing along in the boxcar. We stood up. We laid down. We piled around on each other. We used each other for pillows. I could smell the sour and bitter sweat soaking through my own khaki shirt and britches, and the work clothes, overhauls and saggy, dirty suits of the other guys. My mouth was full of some kind of gray mineral dust that was about an inch deep all over the floor. We looked like a gang of lost corpses heading back to the boneyard. Hot in the September heat, tired, mean and mad, cussing and sweating, raving and preaching. Part of us waved our hands in the cloud of dust and hollered out to the whole crowd. Others was too weak, too sick, too hungry or too drunk even to stand up. The train was a highball and had the right of way. Our car was a rough rider, called by hoboes a "flat wheeler." I was riding in the tail end where I got more dust, but less heat. The wheels were clipping it off at sixty miles an hour. About all I could hear above the raving and cussing and the roar of the car was the jingle and clink on the under side every time the wheels went over a rail joint.
I guess ten or fifteen of us guys was singing:
This train don't carry no gamblers,
Liars, thieves and big-shot ramblers;
This train is bound for glory,
This Train!
  • Throughout the entire trip we were compelled by poverty to steal rides on freight cars. Nothing we could do about that. Between jobs we would sleep in haystacks or near-by boxcars. That was illegal also.
  • A mile outside Waycross, I and a handful of others heading west waited. A freight train rumbled slowly toward us, its stack belching black smoke as the fireman worked up a full head of steam. We scrambled aboard any open car we could catch. The train started picking up speed. Then two long toots of the engine whistle let us know the train was going to "highball" run wide open. There's a lot to be said about traveling in a boxcar, especially an empty one. You can get up and walk around or even trot. You can sing, holler and shout. You disturb no one, if you're alone. Through the wide open door you can watch the countryside go by; you can smell the country air mingled with the odor of sulfur, as the fireman piles more soft coal onto the fire. When it rains, there's a roof over your head. When the wind howls, you can always close the door a wee bit more to keep out the gusts and the cold.
For a novice, danger lurks in and around freight trains. They exact a heavy toll in injuries and deaths. Fortunate indeed is the man who can ride with a few old timers. Three such veterans were in the car with me. I spread out in the back of the car. Then I lay down with my head against the bulkhead. One of the more experienced travelers promptly chided me for being so amateurish. "Why, you can get your brains bashed out, lying like that!" he said. "Suppose the train comes to a sudden stop? Or humps some cars in the middle of the night? Your head would be bashing up against these walls like a yo-yo. Always lie sideways in the car. Then the most that can happen to you is you roll a bit." He went back and sat down with the other two. I heard one comment quietly, "It's hard to teach these young kids anything nowadays. They think they know everything."
  • On my first trip, my friend and I traveled the first leg on top of a boxcar. That is not a particularly relaxing way to travel either, and was made less so in those days by hot cinders from the engine, particularly if the train went through any tunnels. Luckily, ours didn't. But the greatest danger was that a railroad dick, as the company police are derisively called, would spot us and use his club to force us to jump while the train was going at a relatively high speed. I heard many stories of incidents of this kind, mostly from men who were explaining why they walked with a limp, were nursing broken ribs or carrying a broken arm in a crude sling. We rode that way this time because the boxcars were all locked and the run from the railroad yards on the West Side of mid-Manhattan to the yards in Croton-on-Hudson is slow and relatively safe.
At Croton, we changed trains and managed to get comfortably—and safely—inside a boxcar, but not before my friend had taught me about finding an unlocked, empty car and hiding out in the bushes or wherever else one could until the dicks did a check for riders. Then, if you were lucky, you could get in while the train was stationary or just beginning to move. Otherwise, you had to run alongside, at or near the end of the yards, and hope that you could get the doors open and pull yourself in before the train got going too fast. In those days, some friendly railroad workers made a point of leaving a car or two unlocked and slightly ajar so that the hobos could do this. Solidarity forever!
  • We ran across the tracks and slid down the embankment across from the station and down the gully, out of sight of the town.
"I know this country good. There's a big curve ahead. The train got to slow down. I think we can catch her on the run there." We crouched in the underbrush, waiting for the train laboring through the gorge to the east.
For the first time in days I thought of Heidi. How was she? Had her parents found out? What was she doing? The ceaseless search for food and rest had pushed all other thoughts from my mind. The road was beginning to wear me down and get the better of me. The dirt and grime and sweat scratched my body. My hair was full of cinders. I was hungry and bone tired with the kind of weariness only a hobo can know. Was I going to spend the rest of my life like this? Never resting. Never clean. Never gaining. Was I always going to be the constant prey for the cops and the railroad dicks and the hunger? Christ, the only emotion a hobo knows is fear.