Leaving home was often the most wrenching decision the boxcar boys and girls faced in their young lives. They had witnessed the slow impoverishment of their families, as fathers went from half-time to no time at all, and mothers struggled to put food on the table for them and their siblings. Some had always known poverty: children whose fathers earned starvation wages in depressed coal-mining regions of West Virginia, or whose families eked out a living as tenant farmers sharecropping in the South.
There were traditional runaways, like those fleeing an abusive stepfather or cruel stepmother, and orphans escaping institutions that treated their wards with Dickensian ferocity. There were runaways from happy homes, still enjoying all the comforts but hankering for a life of adventure, “for the magic carpet-romance-the click of the rails.”
Girls especially never took the decision to hit the road lightly, for they knew they were stepping into a world filled with danger. It was the same for young African Americans, for whom the beckoning rails could be doubly perilous should they lead into towns where the color of their skin would make them outcasts.
Whatever the reason they left home, they each faced a defining moment when they had to “catch out” and hop their first freight. From that point on, there was no turning back.