Walking to Work: Tramps in America, 1790-1935

By Eric H. Monkkonen | Go to book overview

Michael Davis


Forced to Tramp: The Perspective of the Labor Press, 1870-1900

In 1901 the American Federationist asked Terence V. Powderly, the former Grand Master of the Knights of Labor, to describe his most "thrilling experience" during his years as the senior statesman of the American labor movement. Surprisingly, Powderly recalled neither his accomplishments as the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, nor his achievements as the leader of the country's largest labor organization of the 1880s. Instead he remembered back almost thirty years to his "painful experience as a tramp":

One morning in 1874 I stood where the waters of Lake Erie narrow down and quicken into the Niagara River at Buffalo. I had tramped the ties of the Canada Southern . . . from Windsor, Ontario to Bufralo, N.Y., a distance of two hundred and fifty miles, on foot.

The panic of 1873 still held the floor, and refusing to yield it, I thought that perhaps Canada might afford better opportunities for employment than the United States. I applied at every machine shop, great and small, along the line of that railway, and was thrilled along the entire tramp by the positive way in which a negative answer could be given to a request for employment. Unsuccessful, footsore, heart-sick and hungry, I stood looking from the dock into the water.

Out of employment and money, through no fault of mine, I was reminded of the lines:

"Now is the winter of our discontent,
Out of work and the divil the cent" 1

Undoubtedly many of Powderly's readers were stirred to recollect their own tramping days and "winters of discontent." While estimating

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