Imagine being driven from your home, spending each day searching for work and food and each night sleeping in moving boxcars or hazardous rail yards. This was life for a huge group of young people during the 1930s.
Often called the “Children’s Army”, they were “migrants because of the Depression; runaways from the brutalities of orphan homes and reform schools, a few looking for adventure who didn’t last long when they came face to face with the tragedies and troubles of life on the road.”
And until I read Riding the Rails by Errol Lincoln Uys, published in 2003 by Routledge, I was among the majority of people who had never heard the compelling stories of those young people, though it has been estimated that they numbered up to 1 million in 1932.
Uys gives voice to a handful of these runaways so that their stories won’t be forgotten. The book is a collection of various accounts from some of these “boys and girls of the road,” including letters, handwritten memoirs, and a series of telephone interviews. One particularly compelling story is that of Rene Champion, who spent the first 8 years of his life in an orphanage in Paris, France. He was reunited with his mother in the United States just before the Great Depression. Rene fled from his abusive home after receiving his high school diploma. He says of the day he left, “It was sunny and bright. My heart was light and I felt a certain freedom. I was finally getting away.”
His story, like so many of the others, starts with hope and quickly turns to hardship. When he first tried to hop a train, he fell headfirst to the ground. Rene suffered through cold nights, nights in jail, and beatings by “railroad bulls,” the policemen who patrolled rail yards. He tells of the weeks of hunger and his daydreams of “deep-dish apple pie or a half a dozen hamburgers.”
Besides the hardship, he also writes of the kindness he experienced from “honest, hardworking people with a good sense of values, who were kind and generous,” like a diner owner outside Tucumcari, New Mexico, who gave Rene a free meal after a long stretch without food. Rene also credits the dean of the University of New Mexico who picked him up while he was hitchhiking. The dean convinced Rene to attend college and leave his lonely runaway life behind.
Rene says, “Hoboing is lonely business,” but he also says, “My experiences on the road gave me a great appreciation for this country.”
Some saw these transient youth, like Rene, as gypsies and criminals, referring to them as the “American hobo.” Others considered them an embodiment of the pioneer spirit. President Herbert Hoover praised the individualism of the “roving boy,” and auto-maker Henry Ford said, “They get more experience in a few weeks than they would in years at school.”
This praise doesn’t account for the danger and hardship they faced, including injury from falling off moving railcars, violence from other transients, illnesses like pneumonia and infection, and constant hunger. The book includes photographs of young transients and others living through the Great Depression. One photograph shows a small boy sitting alone and barefoot by a track in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Others show teenagers in action as they “climb the catwalk” or “hop a boxcar.” Others show railroad bulls patrolling the rail yards for transients. Many show children and families in ragged, tattered clothing waiting and waiting.
So if you are like me and you’ve never heard the stories of the Children’s Army in history class, Riding the Rails offers these compelling stories straight from the source.
Leave a comment
Subscribe to Go!
- Iowa State University
- Freight for Children Video Contest
- What transportation culture do you live in?
- Suyun Ma: Environments that reduce driving
- Matthew Arnold: Ties with the Railroad
- Kansas State University Transportation Center: Reflecting Safety and Sustainability
- RSHS biodiesel project: When class becomes fun