Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move during the Great Depression

By Errol Lincoln Uys | Go to book overview

Hard Travelin'

It was a thrill to ride the top of a boxcar running across the Great Plains or the blinds of a famous flyer like the Twentieth Century Limited. Danger was a constant riding companion and situations could turn deadly in an instant. No matter how nimble or quick, one mistake could cost the life of a rider-and did so with tragic frequency. A thousand miles from home with nothing to identify them, they became the MIAs of the train-hopping era, a lost son or daughter lying dead beside the tracks.

Some young people found camaraderie in the roving army, but many road kids kept to themselves, afraid of older strangers. Some rode the rails with friends, including those labeled as “scenery bums, who were out to see America for free. Even the adventurers faced hair-raising moments when they wondered whether they would ever make it to the next stop.

Black road kids often ran headlong into the most blatant and brutal racism. Sometimes, though, they found common ground with white road kids, their shared privations fostering a better understanding between them.

Eventually, a road kid would have a run-in with the bulls. The railroad detectives' reputations varied from one division to another, but were rarely associated with moderation. For many young people, the bulls made riding the rails an adventure in terror.

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