Riding the Rails

The phrase “Riding the Rails” and hobos usually conjure up the history of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. This involved the railroads and the people looking for work anywhere they could find work. Hopping a freight to get to another place was the chosen way when one was out of work and out of money.

Probably the pure adventure of riding a train was a draw for the adventurous person after the railroads began spreading across the countryside. There was a reference found where someone in this area after the trains arrived would not ride on one because they went so fast he was afraid that it would take his breath away!

A recent donation to the Fenton History Center bears out the fact that local adventurous boys/young men hopped trains well before the Great Depression. There are a number of sheets of brittle, browned paper found inside a baking powder can hidden in the floor of a home that was discovered when the floor was taken up. Recorded on these pages, written in pencil in a fairly readable hand, are the adventures of a young man as he, and sometimes others, hopped freights or passenger trains and went for rides east and west from Jamestown.  The first recorded adventure is dated September 3, 1901. Each time the number of miles, the date, and the destination is recorded. The second recorded trip and all the rest of them took place in 1904.

We do not know who wrote these pages. We know that he had a brother named William and friends named Delbert “Hash” Sayres, Clifton Horrocks, Claburn “Pete” Peterson, and Harry “Burlap” Parsons. These friends at times went with the writer. The writer did talk about going to school. He probably had a paper route in that he was on his way to the Morning Post “to collect some money they owed me”. But as he neared Hall’s mills he saw a freight train coming so he “jumped in a coal car and before long was in Randolph.”

His destinations included Buffalo, Randolph, Corry, and Salamanca a number of times. In May and in September he went as far as Warren, Ohio. In April he went to Salamanca. There a hobo asked where he was going and invited him to come to Buffalo with him. They finally arrived in Buffalo about 2 a.m. and ended up being arrested, kept until morning and discharged after appearing in “Sunrise Court”. I was homesick and caught a freight home “a sadder but wiser kid.” At that point he thought his travels would be over but on the 13th of May he was restless so he took an “empty” and ended up in Warren, Ohio. While trying to get home he was kicked off, had to walk a number of miles to find a station from which he could catch a ride. He met a fellow named Walter Hazlett who said he was from Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were able to catch a ride out of Meadville and rode the “tops” all the way to Jamestown. He encountered “bulls” (railroad detectives), some who let him ride and others who discouraged him.

He and some friends went to Corry on Labor Day and arrived back in Jamestown about 10:30 at night. On the 15th of September, he and Horrocks decided to go to Chicago but decided to go as far as Youngstown, Ohio so they could be back in time to go to work on Monday. At one point, they had to jump off the train and the writer waited too long and the train picked up speed but he “jumped off, turned a few somersaults and got badly shaken.” They then took some trolley rides and finally got to a place to catch a freight. After a few starts and stops they arrived in Jamestown only to be arrested as they got off at the boatlanding. But they “knew the “cops” real well and so got off and were home and slept on a bed.” The last trip recorded was a trip to Corry on Thanksgiving Day, November24, 1904.

One wonders if these young men continued hopping freights, riding the “tops” and dodging the “bulls” or if the year of adventure was enough and they went on to steady jobs.

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