One of the most colorful characters to come out of American railroading history was the hobo. In a historical context, hoboes first appeared after the Civil War when war-weary soldiers needed transportation home. Many hopped freight trains, and for reasons all their own, some never returned home, continuing to ride the rails to no particular destination. They worked in exchange for food and slept under the stars. America's hobo population fluctuated according to the economic tides. While there were approximately 60,000 hoboes wandering in the 1890s, there were 15 times that many after the turn of the century and more than 1 million during the years of the Great Depression.
To some, the hobo represents many American ideals: freedom to move, independence, resourcefulness and self-reliance. They were people who were not tied down to a single place. Many worked for what they needed, and no job was below them. They were occasionally a resource for industries that needed temporary workers.
Hoboes had their own culture, too. A hobo camp was called a "jungle." They had their own songs and recipes, including Mulligan Stew cooked over an open campfire. They even had secret signs and communications. For example, if a house was kind to hoboes, they would leave some sort of a mark to let other hoboes know they could get a meal, work or a place to sleep there. To the railroads though, the hobo was a trespasser and a nuisance, raising serious safety concerns.
Hoboes still exist today, although they are not as visible as they once were. However, you may find a few in a hobo "jungle" on the Carnegie Science Center's Miniature Railroad & Village if you look closely.
The Miniature Railroad & Village closed for annual renovations and maintenance on Sept. 30 and will reopen Nov. 29. New this year: Miniature Railroad: CSI Edition!
First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM