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Issue 12 (November 2008)
A young man's railroad journeys during the DepressionJune 1933
This was a red letter month for me, as I graduated from high school. It was in the middle of the worst depression ever known in the United States. There were absolutely no jobs available, not even a newspaper route or a service station job.
I had always been interested
in travel, with a strong desire to see for myself what the rest of the world looked like. I had been interested in travel and adventure books and had read all that I could find in the local library.
The word had been passed around that the train would stop outside of town, and the railroad dicks would shake it down and kick us all off.
The only traveling I had done was to go to San Francisco and Santa Cruz. I had read in the newspaper about the World's Fair in Chicago, so I decided—on the spur of the moment—to go there.
The morning after I made my decision, my mother kissed me good-bye and pressed a five-dollar bill in my hand. It was about 8:30 on the morning of a beautiful, clear day. I walked down to the Southern Pacific freight yards and poked around for a while. I finally spoke to a brakeman, who was helping to make up a “refer” freight. I asked him if the freight was going east, and he said yes. I waited around for about an hour, and finally the “mountain mule” freight engine was coupled at the head of the train. As soon as this happened about a dozen men quickly began to climb aboard. I got aboard and found a car that wasn't iced up; it happened to be a carload of onions. The “refer” cars had small sections at the ends, separated from the main car (where the cargo was loaded) by a wire screen, that were loaded with blocks of ice when the cars were loaded with perishable fruit.
Soon after, the engineer signaled with several toots of his whistle that we were getting under way, and then with a jerk we got under way. I became terribly excited when I realized that we were rolling. At last my dreams were to be realized. I was spreading my wings and going to see what lay beyond the horizon.
We headed for Oakland and arrived there at noon, passed quickly through the freight yard and continued on the main line headed for Sacramento. The scenery was pretty much what I was used to—farm and pasture land with orchards interspersed. We reached Sacramento in the afternoon and headed for the Sierra Nevada via the Feather River canyon. I was really impressed when we started up into the mountains. The railroad track traveled alongside the Feather River for many miles. I was fascinated by the sight of the rushing river and the rugged mountain scenery. We passed through beautiful forests of pine trees.
We reached Truckee just before sundown. This was an icing stop, and the engine had to be refueled with water and oil. I noticed that all of my fellow travelers were disembarking; so, I asked a young chap, who had been sharing the car with me, what was up, and he replied that it was our only chance to get something to eat. I teamed up with him, and we headed toward town. I quickly found out that the best way to operate was to find the “Mom and Pop” grocery stores and then beg for food such as day-old loaves of bread, cheese, and sandwich meat. We did quite well and soon headed back to the freight yard and boarded our train again.
As night fell, I was still very greatly excited and couldn’t believe the beauty of the night. I had never seen the stars at that altitude and was very impressed at the number and brightness of the stars in the clear, velvety blackness of the night sky. I finally became sleepy in spite of my excitement and crawled down into the ice chamber, where Bill, my companion, had already gone to sleep. I made myself as comfortable as possible and quickly went to sleep.
I awakened early the next morning to the brilliant sunshine of the Nevada semi-desert. I ate some of our store of bread and meat and had a drink of milk. I had to wait ‘til the train stopped to answer the call of nature. I climbed up on top of the freight car and was dazzled by the sight of sage brush and sand.
We came to the Great Salt Lake in the afternoon. It was unbelievable—miles and miles of salt in every direction. I had a good view of the lake since the tracks were on a trestle out over the lake. We finally arrived at Salt Lake City late in the afternoon. We immediately left the train, which was again icing up and refueling, and spread out to scrounge some food. Bill and I got back to the train by dark and didn’t have to wait long before it got underway.
The next morning we found that we were on the Great Plains. The scenery was rather monotonous—fields of wheat as far as the eye could see, but I was beginning to be impressed by the vastness of the United States. I had another good night’s sleep and, soon after getting up, we arrived in Cheyenne. Bill and I decided to lay over for a day and got off of the train when it slowed up outside the freight yards. There was a hobo jungle where we got off. It consisted of a camping area with a small pond, which was about four feet deep. This was a welcome sight since we had been on the road for three days, and I had quite a growth of beard and was feeling pretty sweaty. I got my razor and soap out of my pockets, and then I stripped and jumped into the pond. It felt great; the water felt cool and refreshing. After splashing around for awhile, I soaped all over and had a great bath; then I lathered up my face and, using the surface of the pond as a mirror, proceeded to shave. I got out of the pond and dried off in the hot sun. After Bill and I got dressed, we headed into town to get some grub. There were three other men in the jungle, and we decided to get some meat, potatoes, and onions to make Hobo Stew. Bill and I agreed to try to get the meat. We headed for town to try our luck. Bill and I were quite successful, and we soon returned to the jungle. It wasn’t too long before the other “bos” returned. Someone produced a knife, and we proceeded to peel the potatoes and onions, while the meat was browning in a couple of gallon cans over a fire we had built. As soon as the meat was good and brown, we added water, salt, potatoes, and onions and put the whole mess on the campfire to simmer.
Along toward evening it was decided that the stew was cooked, since we tested the meat and found it to be tender. We filled up our cans from the stewpot and, using some spoons that were in the camp, proceeded to eat. It was undoubtedly the most delicious meal I have ever eaten. After eating we built up the fire and exchanged news of work from all parts of the country. Soon I felt sleepy, so I found a soft spot on the ground and stretched out.
Before I knew it, I was awakened by the sun in my eyes. I got up, brushed my teeth, and washed my face; then I went over to the group around the fire. Someone had scrounged some coffee, and there was a big can full of coffee on the fire. I grabbed a can and helped myself.
One of the “bos” had news that another “refer” to Chicago was coming through that morning, so we cleaned up the jungle and prepared to depart. The “refer” came through about nine o’clock, and, as it slowed down for the yards, we all hopped aboard. Once more I was on my way.
Late the next day the train pulled into Omaha. This event was very memorable to me since it was the only time I have ever seen stars as a result of a blow to the head. Here is how it happened. After stopping for icing and refueling, the train pulled out of the yards. The word had been passed around that the train would stop outside of town, and the railroad dicks would shake it down and kick us all off. Sure enough, just after dark, when we got outside of the city, the train slowed down and stopped. We could see the lights of several cars on a rough road alongside of the tracks. We all got off of the train. I didn’t know what to do, so I headed down the steep embankment at full speed. The next thing I knew, I ran full tilt into a barbed wire fence at the bottom of the embankment, and the top strand was just at my hips. I flipped over the fence and landed on my head; that was when I saw bright colored stars shooting off in all directions. I lay where I was and watched the railroad dicks’ flashlights as they shook down the train. Finally the dicks gave the engineer the signal to pull out. They waited until the train was in motion and then left. I ran up the embankment and managed to hook on to the train as the last few cars went by. After I found and uniced car, I climbed down into the ice compartment and tried to asses my condition. Aside from a large lump on the left side of my forehead, and a slight headache, there appeared to be no physical damage; but, alas, to my dismay, I found that the left leg of my slacks was ripped from the crotch to the ankle.
As we approached Illinois the next day, the terrain began to change. At first there were low, rolling hills sparsely dotted with clumps of trees. Then small, neat, one-family farms began to appear with their brightly painted red and white houses and barns. Late that afternoon we pulled into Champaign. The train was to make a stop there for final icing and fuel before continuing to Chicago. As soon as it stopped, I got off and headed for the city. When I got to the city, I spotted a public phone booth. I checked the yellow pages for a tailor. I found a couple of addresses and finally found one of the shops. It was a little hole-in-the-wall, and I went in and asked the tailor if he could sew up my pants’ leg for free. He laughed and said sure. So I stepped behind the counter, removed my pants, and sat down on a chair. The tailor took my pants and, in a few minutes, had the tear sewn up. I felt much better. I thanked him and hurried back to the freight yard, as I didn’t want to miss the train.
In a short time the train started to move out onto the main line. I was beginning to get excited as we neared Chicago. A day-and-a-half later we were pulling into the vast freight yards of South Chicago. I don’t know what happened to Bill; I didn’t see him again after the fiasco outside of Champaign.
When the train jerked to a stop, we all got off. There was a group of “bos” up ahead, so I walked up and joined them. It turned out that three of them were going to the Salvation Army flophouse in South Chicago. I decided to join them. We walked for about three hours and finally came to the flophouse. We went in and asked for food and shelter. We were told to wait around, that dinner would be served at six o’clock, and—in the meantime—the man in charge showed us some cots where we could sleep for the night. He also showed us where the shower room was and issued us some towels and soap. I quickly got out my razor and toothbrush, stripped and headed for the showers. After I had shaved and showered I felt like new again—ready for the big adventure. I stayed at the shelter for two days and had a couple of good hot meals. The meals consisted of meat-and-potato stew with some French rolls and coffee.
The next day I found out how to get to the Fair. I started hitchhiking along the South Shore Boulevard to downtown Chicago. The Fair was located on the shore of Lake Michigan near the Loop. As we approached the Loop, I was the typical tourist. I could hardly believe the tall buildings and all the people in such a rush. Without too much trouble I reached the Fair, and I walked past the entrance and down along the fence on the shore side. The fence was seven feet tall aluminum siding. I walked along the fence until I was far enough from the entrance to avoid being caught. I then leaped up, caught the top of the fence, and then I was over the fence and inside the fairgrounds. The backs of the exhibits were all up against the fence, so I quickly found a opening between them, and in a moment I was out on the esplanade. I was wide-eyed with wonder as I walked along and went through all the free exhibits. There were so many that I can’t begin to enumerate them.
One in particular fascinated me. It consisted of the Bell Telephone Company exhibit. At the time the telephone company was just beginning to install dial telephones. The exhibit included a sample set-up of the automatic switching relays and a dial telephone. I could dial the telephone and watch the relays clicking as I dialed. It was really amazing at that point in time.
There was one show in particular that I couldn’t resist. It was Sally Rand and her fan dancers. I went into a restroom and removed one of my four remaining dollar bills from my shoe. The show soon started. I was all agog, like a country boy at his first burlesque. There was Sally Rand and four other girls. They were all nude but covered themselves very artistically with their ostrich feather fans. They did a modern dance routine, occasionally whirling around and showing the audience their bare bottoms. The show was soon over, but I felt it was worth it.
I stayed in the fairgrounds for four days. I slept on the ground behind the exhibits. There was no problem about shaving and washing up since there were plenty of restrooms with hot and cold running water, and very few people around early in the morning. I lived on coffee, doughnuts, and hamburgers. I got the money for food by approaching prosperous-looking men and bumming a quarter from them, One man asked me how I got in the fairgrounds, and when I told him he laughed and gave me a dollar.
On the evening of the fourth day it started to rain lightly, so I decided to leave the fairgrounds and seek some kind of shelter. After I left the fairgrounds, I was walking along the lake shore, and I noticed some large blocks of granite piled along the shore to act as a breakwater. On closer examination I found one large block piled on top of some others; there was a sizable space underneath it. So I crawled under it and got out of the rain. It was a warm summer evening, and I quickly went to sleep.
The next morning I awakened early to the sound of voices and laughter. I climbed out of my cave and climbed up on top of the breakwater. Down on the sand of the lake shore, there was a group of black men around a campfire. I was curious, so I climbed down and joined them. They had been fishing and were cooking the fish over the campfire. They all grinned when they saw me and asked if I wanted some fried fish. I immediately said yes, and they told me to help myself. It turned out to be the best fish I had ever eaten. After eating I stayed around for a while and laughed and joked with them. I heard the sounds of cars up on the boulevard and told them good-bye and thanked them for the fish.
I climbed over the breakwater and got up on the boulevard. I soon caught a ride and, after I got in the car, found out that the chap was going all the way to South Chicago. We arrived in South “Chi” about noon, and I headed for the flophouse. When I arrived there, I went into the dining area and got a cup of coffee. There were four or five chaps sitting at one of the tables, so I went over and joined them. They were swapping news about job hunting. One of them said that he had heard that the Illinois Steel Mill was hiring chippers. I asked him what a chipper was supposed to do. He replied that when the steel ingots came from the first rollers they had surface cracks that had to be chiseled out. If they weren’t removed the ingot would be flawed as it went through the complete rolling and forming process. I figured I could learn to do the job in a short time, so I asked him how to get to the mill. After he told me, I finished my coffee, washed the cup, and set out to find the mill.
I soon arrived at the mill and approached the gate. The guard at the gate asked what I wanted. I told him I wanted a job, and he directed me to the employment office, which was just inside the fence. It was a red brick building coated with soot and coaldust. I went inside and joined the line in front of the employment window. I soon reached the window, and the man asked me what kind of job I wanted. I replied that I wanted a job as a chipper. He asked me where I had worked before. I replied blithely that I had worked at Bethlehem Steel in Pittsburgh. He quickly filled out the work form, gave me a badge, and told me to come to work that afternoon at four o’clock. I asked him how to get to the chipping shed, and he told me the directions, and I was all set.
I spent the afternoon wandering around South Chicago. In my wandering I spotted a small park that looked like it might be a good place to sleep. I couldn’t go back to the flophouse, since I had a job.
At four o’clock I went back to the mill. Since I had a badge, I had no trouble getting through the gate. I started walking to the chipping shed. The walk through the yard was rather depressing. There were a lot of huge buildings covered with corrugated iron that were coated with soot. When I arrived at the building where the chipping shed was located, I asked for Slim the foreman. One of the men standing around pointed him out to me, and I went over and told him who I was, and that I was just starting to work. He took me over to the tool crib and issued me an air hammer and a bucket full of chisels. He took me over to the rails where the ingots were laid out. I found an air hose nearby, hooked up my air hammer and put on my goggles. It only took me a few minutes to figure out how to chisel the cracks off the surface of the ingot. I was concentrating on doing a good job so much that I was surprised when Slim blew the whistle for chow break. All the fellows gathered in a group and began to eat. Slim noticed that I and another young man weren’t eating, and he asked us if we didn’t have any chow. We both said no, so he suggested that we go to the company cafeteria. He said we could get meal tickets there and pay for them when we got paid. Phil, the other young man, and I immediately hightailed it over to the cafeteria and signed up for our meal tickets. We had a good dinner and went back to work.
Before too long it was midnight, and we went off shift. The dazzling display of fireworks in the steel mill at nighttime reminded me of Dante’s Inferno. The glaring red eyes of the pre-heat furnaces, and the train loads of white hot ingots winding through the yards like a sinuous, surrealistic snake. Then the dazzling pyrotechnics of the Bessemer furnace filled the sky. I always enjoyed the show, as I walked through the yard at night.
I headed out the gate and started to walk down the street to the park. I had only gone a few blocks when I heard a female voice from an open window in one of the nondescript houses urging me to come in and partake of the pleasures of the body. I told her I didn’t have any money, and she laughed and said some other time. I later discovered that the section of town I was walking through was the black red-light district. I got to know some of the girls fairly well, as I walked through there every night.
I soon arrived at the park, and I went to the spot I had found earlier,. I crawled under the overhanging bushes and curled up and was soon asleep. I awakened about ten in the morning and went over to the flophouse. I talked the manager into letting me shave and shower there until payday.
Friday was a red-letter day. I collected my first pay: 125 dollars. Boy, I was rich. I went with Phil after getting my pay and rented a single room at the rooming house where he was staying. The first thing I did was to take a good hot bath and shave. Then I walked to the business center, which was a few blocks away and found a men’s clothing store. I bought a sports jacket, a pair of slacks, shirts, undies, and socks. Boy, was I glad to get out of my traveling clothes. They were beginning to get rather high.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in San Jose, Frank Wicks set out to find his fortune several times over. In addition to his experiences described here, he worked aboard a tramp steamer plying the Far East, and eventually settled in what later became Silicon Valley when he worked at NASA's Ames Laboratories for the next 30 years, building models for testing in the then-state of the art wind tunnels. After retirement he went back to school and earned a BS in Psychology from the University of Colorado, in Boulder. In between courses he and his wife trekked the high Rockies. Nine years after the events recounted in this story he became the proud father of the current editor of The Ecphorizer Online.