The following story is offered for its entertainment value only, and in no way do we condone or encourage train hopping, since it is very dangerous.
It was eleven o'clock on the night of August 15, 1932. I boarded my first side-door pullman (boxcar) in the railroad yards of Superior, Wisconsin. I had three dollars in my pocket. I was going to look for work.
Round Trip In A Side-Door Pullman
by John R. Niemi, Jr.
I did not take a timetable or a map along. This was going to be a projected excursion, with no specific destination. Therefore, a planned itinerary would have been useless.
My arrival in St. Cloud, Minnesota the next morning was without incident. I washed up in a nearby washroom and went into town for breakfast. I had a fine breakfast of hot-cakes and coffee for only fifteen cents.
After breakfast I meandered to the west edge of the yards and caught a west bound freight out of St. Cloud. St. Cloud was a nice town, but there was no work available there, so it was of no use to hang around.
The boxcar I caught was very clean. Grain had been its last content. Most side-door pullmans are clean, they are swept after each shipment. They are roomy, but only as comfortable as one makes them. There are no soft pillows, mattresses or sheets. You use your hat for a pillow and an old newspaper for a blanket. You spread another old newspaper on the floor and use it for a mattress. It's surprising how soft that floor feels when you are dead tired.
I soon learned the fine art of catching and leaving moving trains. Unless one uses great caution in this maneuver, he is apt to lose a foot, leg or even his life. Once on a train, a hobo was hardly ever bothered by the train crew. The hobos numbered so many, the brakemen and the engineers just gave up. The biggest thorn in the hobo's side was the railway detective. He showed no mercy. One had to be of nimble foot to keep away from the "dicks".
The first full day out was uneventful. It was warm and pleasant. When I wasn't playing poker (with matches) with some of the other "boes", I would sit on the edge of the boxcar doorway enjoying the passing country side.
The trains arrival in Bismark, North Dakota late that night went undetected . The local gendarmes must have been busy with more important duties. I was not afraid of the law, I had no reason to be . If it could be called a crime, my only crime was to be out looking for work. A hobo can, however, be jailed on a vagrancy charge. Such a charge would have netted me at least thirty days in the bastille. I was in no particular hurry, but in case no work was to be had, I wanted to beat the oncoming cold weather on my homeward trek.
My supper that evening consisted of two hamburgers with coffee, that set me back another fifteen cents. It wasn't a big supper, but I had to be frugal. I had two seventy left of my original three dollars. This had to last at least another week.
Boarding a west bound freight out of Bismark later that night was a simple matter. There were about twenty five other hobos in the boxcar I got into, but there was still plenty of room for me.
I bedded down about nine o'clock. The night was very warm, so the doors were left open. With the warm breeze blowing, the click, click of the rails and being very weary, I was asleep in no time. That deep sleep was abruptly interrupted by a sudden commotion. A couple of men had caught a fellow hobo trying to lift them of their wallets. The two men immediately got the sympathy of the other brothers and they decreed that the culprit get the so called treatment. The thief was stripped of all his clothing except his underwear and shoes. When the train slowed down going up a grade, he was told to jump, or else. He jumped. This is known as the "kangaroo court justice" of hobo travel. At the time I didn't know what the alternative, "or else" meant. I wasn't inquisitive, I thought it best to keep my mouth shut. I did find out years later, though, that the alternative was a cruel beating. A friend of mine had witnessed such an incident.
We traveled westward. Along the way all of us hobos were offered work in the harvest fields by the farmers. The farmers stood on the railway sidings, holding up one finger, indicating one dollar per day and meals, for working ten hours pitching grain shocks. For ten cents per hour, that did not appeal to me, so I rode on. The prairie country gradually evolved into the badlands, then the rolling hills, then finally into the majestic Rocky Mountains. The scenery was beautiful. As we entered the mountains, the engines changed over from coal burners to oil burners. To us, that was a welcome relief. We could now sit on top of the boxcars and really enjoy the mountain beauty, without getting cinders in our eyes. It was slow going through the mountain range. The really bad feature of the mountain trip was the absence of towns. We could not find a place to buy, beg, borrow or steal something to eat.
After leaving the Rocky Mountains behind us, the countryside became a little flatter, but not for long. The long freight train wound in and out of small mountain ranges until we reached the great Cascades. This is where the train switched from oil burning locomotive to electric. We finally reached the eight mile tunnel, the longest railway tunnel in the world. The ride through that tunnel is one experience I will never forget. It was made riding on top of a boxcar. One false move, and oblivion. It took only thirty minutes to go through, but they were a long thirty minutes.
I arrived in Seattle, Washington on the morning of the sixth day. I had traveled through six states in six days. I still had one dollar in my pocket. I will admit that the hunger pangs had struck more than once, but I just had to make the short funds last as long as possible. I had up to this point, lost eleven pounds.
By sleeping in hobo-jungles, I managed to make that dollar last several days. Occasionally I would get a job washing dishes for a meal. Steady employment was not to be had in Seattle. I spent my last dime for two packages of Bull-Durham roll-your-own tobacco, then headed for the railroad yards. One hour later I caught a south bound freight for Portland, Oregon. I arrived there late the next day, flat broke, and hungry. Up until now, I had paid for everything, but it was going to be different from here on in.
This is where I began talking to myself. "John, " sez I, "You are broke; you haven't found a job; you are hungry; what now?" "Well now, that's a damn good question John, and it deserves a damn good answer." I sez, "Let's try a little panhandling and see what happens." That was my answer. So John headed for the "silk stocking" district, the district that housed the housewives. You know, it turned out real good. God bless the American housewife. During the ensuing days, I knocked on many back doors, begging for a chance to do some little chore for something to eat. I was turned down only twice. I always offered to work for my food. I painted fences, mowed lawns, chopped wood, trimmed hedges, scrubbed floors, washed windows, hung washing, washed dishes and many small around-the-house tasks.
Portland had no steady jobs to offer, so I had to be on my way once again. A few days later I arrived in Klamath Falls, Oregon about ten in the morning. This is one town I will never forget. At eleven that same morning, a brand spanking new restaurant was opening for business. To advertise, they were giving FREE meals from eleven A.M. to three P.M. I had strolled into town about ten-thirty. I saw two long lines of people in front of the restaurant. Being a curious hobo, I went to investigate. After I saw what was being offered free of charge, I was in one of those lines, tout desuite. One line was for the main meal, the other line was for the soda fountain. Naturally, I was in the main course line. I had a very fine meal, a meat loaf dinner. I was still hungry, the meal was good, but not quite adequate. I came out of the dinner side, and then slipped into the soda fountain line. Thirty minutes later, I was walking down the street smoking a nice big fat cigar. I had a good dinner, a chocolate malt, and a cigar, without begging for them. Life can be beautiful.
Four hours later I was back in my pullman traveling south towards San Fransisco. Before getting to San Fransisco, we encountered several small railway tunnels . One of these tunnels was about a mile long. In this, I almost met my maker, along with many other hobos. The engine of the train was an oil burner, it left a very acrid trail of smoke behindit, also in front of the engine. This turnabout was caused by the low ceiling of the tunnel. Riding on top of a boxcar was out of the question, to ride inside one was impossible, all cars were sealed. This situation left a choice of three other places to ride. Underneath the cars (the rods), in between the cars, or on the cowcatcher, which is in front of the engine. I chose the cowcatcher with six others. The engineer warned us that we were doing so at our own risk. That warning scared me a little, but then on the other hand, I had done everything so far at my own risk, so why stop now? All of us wet our handkerchiefs for better air filtration. The handkerchiefs were held over the nose and mouth as we proceeded through the tunnel. Then it happened! The putrid smoke curled down in front of the engine after hitting the tunnel ceiling.In spite of the wet handkerchiefs, we coughed, gagged and our eyes smarted. The heat was terrific, but all we could do was to hang on and bear it. I seemed an eternity, but we made it . When it was all over, everybody, including the fireman and engineer had a good laugh over our baptism in Hades. Times were tough, work was scarce and most of our meals were far apart, but somehow or another we had not lost our sense of humor.
I arrived in San Fransisco safe and sound, but again---hungry. That eternal hunger was always with me. I got lucky, I got a job in a restaurant, washing dishes for a meal ticket. I spent several days there sightseeing, and looking for steady employment. San Fransisco didn't have it, so I hit the road again, this time for Los Angeles, California.
With about three hundred other hobos, I arrived in Los Angeles early in the morning. Not early enough, however, to escape the tough railway "dicks." Of the three hundred hobos, about fifty of them were women, some were married, some were not. The police herded all the unmarried women into one group and hauled them off to the city. They didn't overlook the men either. They caught quite a few, me included. Most of the married couples were able to prove that they were going to visit relatives, so the police let them go. Some weren't so lucky. The cops did not reckon with my determination. Fancy leg work, and my youth were in my favor--there were just too many hobos, and too few cops. I escaped from them, and hiked into the city. I washed up and shaved at a gas station. I also changed into my "city" clothes. I had left home with traveling clothes and more presentable clothing for job-hunting and roaming the cities. The gas station attendent was very kind, he took care of my traveling clothes. I told him I would pick them up in a few days.
As soon as I got into the city proper, I decided to do a little panhandling for money. Being in a big city, a man had to have a little cash. This was a new experience again, but it turned out alright. For about three hours of panhandling, I garnered two dollars. Some of this money I used for breakfast, tailor-made cigarettes and car fare to Hollywood. Like any other "tourist", the trip would not have been complete if I had not seen Hollywood.
I did a lot of job-hunting in Hollywood, but to no avail. I did a lot of sightseeing too. I had the rare opportunity of watching a couple of moving pictures being made . One scene of a picture was being filmed in the Hollywood Legion Stadium. It was a wrestling scene. The movie starred Joel McCrea and Marian Marsh. The title of the picture, if my memory serves me correctly, was "The Sports Parade". I was invited to sit in the ringside section with the regular extras. We were all given cigarettes and told to smoke them fast and furiously to give the picture the smoky ringside atmosphere. For this little chore, I was given a good lunch, and five packages of cigarettes. For a bum, I was doing alright.
I was getting rather tired of sleeping in boxcars and hobo-jungles . I decided on a bold move. I went to the Hollywood police station to ask for a nights lodging in the jail. To my surprise, I got it. The only questions I had to answer, were my age, which was nineteen---home town, Duluth, Minnesota---destination, any town or city where I got a permanent job. At six o'clock the next morning I was kicked out of jail, so to speak . Before I left I asked the morning desk sargeant if another nights lodging would put them out too much. To my surprise again, he said no, but to check about ten o'clock that night to see if there was a bunk available. I went back that night and there was a bunk . Along with this nights lodging I got one hellova lecture from the same desk sargeant that was on the job the previous night. What he told me made my ears sting, but it was the truth. All I could say was "Yes sir". The next morning I thanked everybody concerned and told them I was leaving Los Angeles as soon as I could get to the freight yards.
Hollywood was full of excitement and fun, but there was no work to be had. Along with the scathing invitation from the police to leave town and the fact that I was no playboy, I had to be on my way. I picked up my traveling clothes from the gas station and headed for the yards. At three that afternoon a hot-shot fruit express was leaving Los Angeles for points east, I wanted to be on it. Using fast leg work, I evaded the yard dicks, caught the express and I was on my way again.
I woke up the next morning somewhere in the desert and it was hotter than Hades outside. I didn't notice the heat at first, as I was in the empty ice compartment of a refrigerator (reefer) car. The car was loaded with lemons. I poked my head out of the reefer hole and the desert air hit me like a lick from a blast furnace. That was enough, so I stayed in the ice compartment until the train pulled into Indio, California.
The train stopped at Indio for water and re-icing of the other reefers. This gave me a chance to get out and stretch my legs. There were a few houses near the yards, so I went out to try my luck at panhandling again. My luck was good, I got two nice roast beef sandwiches and some sugar. On my way back to the train, I picked up a discarded coffee can. I was about to have some lemonade with my sandwiches. I crawled back into the reefer hole to steal a couple of lemons. The opening between the ice compartment and the lemons was small, but I had a small hand, I got the lemons. I filled the can with ice-water . That completed the ingredients for my lemonade.
Empty reefer compartments were at a premium on the fruit express when it left Indio. I got company in my compartment. Three other "boes" joined me. The four of us slept in the three by seven foot space, smelling each others stinking feet until we pulled into Yuma, Arizona. Here I got out of this reefer hole.
The southern route is a starvation trek due to the sparsity of towns and the increasing number of hobos. Here the housewives were slightly disgusted with the hobo. I couldn't blame them. Arizona was left behind like a dirty shirt.
El Paso, Texas was next, and it was no better. No work there, either, but the housewives were better. I spent one day there and I was well fed for the very little work I had to do. One housewife even fixed me a box lunch, which lasted me until I got into Tucumcari, New Mexico.
In Tucumcari I was treated to quite a dinner. I panhandled a Mexican family. I sat at their table, and they passed the food, so I heaped my plate. I took my spoon and began to eat what I thought was stewed tomatoes, but gulped a mixture of hot Mexican chili instead. The tears streamed down my cheeks, but I kept on eating. The Mexican kids and the old folks roared with laughter. I finished the meal, however, and thanked them for the hospitality the Mexicans are noted for.
Kansas City, Missouri was next, then Des Moines, Iowa. Both cities had the same coldness about them concerning work, so I spent only one day in each city.
I was now heading due north and the weather was getting colder, especially the nights. I missed the fruit express out of Des Moines for Minneapolis, Minnesota. The only quick way out now was to catch a freight of oil tankers. I had had some rough rides during the course of my excursion, but the ride on the oil tanker was by far the most miserable. The only place to ride on an oil tanker is on the twelve inch running board. There are two of these boards, one on each side of the car. The night was cold, rainy, and windy. I lay on my stomach, with my arms wrapped around the running board. I didn't dare fall asleep for fear of falling off. I bounced and froze all night long.
I arrived at my brothers home in Minneapolis the next morning looking like a frozen rabbit out of deep freeze, and believe me, feeling like one.
That night I had a hot bath and slept in a soft bed with clean sheets and real pillows for the first time in twenty-seven nights. Tired as I was, I had difficulty in falling asleep. I missed the click, click of the wheel against the rail.
After a few days of rest, by brother gave me railway fare to Duluth. I had left the Twin Ports as bum in a side-door pullman, and arrived back as a bum in a real pullman car.
I arrived home on September 15, 1932, exactly one month after departure. I had lost twenty-three pounds. I can't say whether I was any wiser, but it was an adventure that was never to be forgotten. I had been in fifteen states, many metropolitan cities, and countless small towns, hamlets and whistle stops. I did it with five dollars. I did not find a job, but the good Lord knows how hard I tried. I had seen riches that I never realized existed. I also saw such squalid poverty that it made me sick.
Although I had a brush with death, went hungry for many days, and temporarily lost my pride and self respect while compelled to beg, there is not enough money in these wonderful United States to buy an experience like it.
The Sidedoor Pullman excursion was started in Superior, Wis. Aug. 15, 1932 and completed in Duluth, Minn.(across the bay from Superior) on Sept. 15, 1932. This story was written 15 years later (1947) in San Diego, Calif. where the first person (the author) resided.
John R. Niemi, Jr. passed away in 1989.