Eli Hiller
Eli Hiller

New-school riders follow in tracks of the American hobo

Train hoppers still lured by nomadic life on the rails, despite fewer numbers and greater surveillance

BRITT, Iowa — Veteran hobo Gerard “Frog” Fortin hopped his first freight train in 1970 in Florida, riding an open-topped gondola car through the night to New Orleans. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair.

“I remember that entire night. I didn't fall asleep because I was just so mesmerized by the wide-open skies and the stars shining in on me. I was just so thrilled. I just felt that exhilarated. That wanderlust in me was finally filled,” he recalled, beaming at the memory. “It was total and absolute freedom.”

After 31 years traveling the United States and working as an itinerant laborer, cook and sometime oil rig worker in the Gulf of Mexico, Fortin, 64, joined a growing number of aging hobos who have retired and settled down.

Twice elected Hobo King at the National Hobo Convention in this small Iowa town, he now lives full time in Montana. Today the Hobo King’s role — and that of the annual festival, held in the town since 1900 — is largely curatorial: keeping the history and traditions of the fabled American hobo alive while honoring the old-time riders who have “caught the westbound” to the town’s cemetery.

Between the Civil War and the Great Depression, there were as many as half a million hobos hopping box cars, gondolas and grain wagons to roam the United States in search of casual work and adventure, meeting a demand for migrant labor and carving themselves a niche in the American psyche as enduring symbols of freedom.

But now with faster trains, more containerized freight and an increasingly secure rail network after the Sept. 11 attacks, the number wandering the 140,000-mile U.S. freight network has plunged to just a few hundred mostly younger riders, railroad officials said, with some travelers hopping trains only in the warmer months of the year.

The annual convention, which is held the second weekend of August, came to Britt a few years after hobos banded together to form Tourist Union #63 in a move that sought to prevent police from prosecuting them for vagrancy.

This year, graying hobos, their families and visitors gathered at the Hobo Jungle Park south of the Soo Line Railroad tracks in Britt to light a ceremonial fire, which was followed by spirited performances of hobo poetry and song.

Other events at the four-day bash included a parade, craft show, the Hobo King and Queen coronation ceremony in City Park and a feast of traditional mulligan stew. Striking a somber note, festivalgoers also gathered for a remembrance service at the town’s Evergreen Cemetery, where this year the ashes of Bo Grump, Milwaukee Mike and Fran Minstrel were buried with military honors.

Some, like Fortin, who now uses a wheelchair for mobility, looked to a reduced group of younger riders, who arrived at the festival in ones and twos, to carry their torch into the future.

“They are our future as far as keeping the history of the hobo lifestyle alive,” he said. “They are a continuum of that quest for freedom.”

‘It’s addictive. It’s like shooting heroin into your arm. It’s beautiful.’

DJ Kist

new-school rider

Gutter punks and tramps

From left, Adam Blumenthal, Sean White and DJ Kist hold puppies given to them by a fellow rider, Aug. 10, 2014. They plan to travel and ride the rails with their newly adopted dogs.
Eli Hiller

Fortin took to the rails after he was rejected as a volunteer for military service at the height of the Vietnam War. Decades later, the new generation of freight hoppers — who self-identify as dirty kids, gutter punks, tramps and new-school riders — also cited push factors driving them to hop trains.

Bethany, a 22-year-old from Norfolk, Virginia, jumped her first freight wagon three years ago after she lost her job as a night shelf stocker at a Target store and was thrown out by her mother.

“I lost my job, got laid off, and she booted me out the door. So I was like, ‘You know what? Screw it. I’m going to Richmond, and I am going to jump on a train, go wherever the hell I want, do what I want,’” she said, sitting among the tents and tarpaulins at Hobo Jungle as old- and new-school riders chatted and swapped stories.

All the young riders, wearing grubby T-shirts, patched jeans, neck scarves and baseball caps, had hopped freight trains to nearby Mason City and Boone, Iowa, then walked or hitchhiked the last miles to reach Britt. Some had tattoos of ladderlike tracks on their arms, while several were inked with initials marking affiliation to two rail-riding brotherhoods, the TV Set Kids and the Home Bum Slam Rail Punks. 

Ben, a 25-year-old welder from California, said he opted for a life on the rails — surviving on casual yard work and panhandling — because he felt out of step with his peers and their more settled values. “Most people are content with their lifestyles, like settling down, going to college, paying debt and having a mortgage and all that s---and being happy with that ... but I feel like a real big disconnect from that as a person,” he said.

In Fortin’s time, hobos frequently hopped trains in freight yards. But new riders said that, ever since the 9/11 attacks, rail yards are increasingly patrolled and inspected by railroad police known as bulls and watched over by state-of-the-art surveillance systems.

“I’ve seen yards that have heat scanners, motion sensors [and] surveillance cameras,” said 21-year-old John, a Colorado native, of the increased vigilance. Now “you catch it as it’s leaving the yard ... Throw your gear on, get yourself on, stay down and hide.” 

Freight riding has always been dangerous, and in 2012, 463 people were killed on the rails, according to the United States Department of Transportation. Young riders at Britt swapped tales of accidents — among them an ankle broken running to hop a train and a narrow escape from freezing to death on a long winter ride. Then there are the fights in the trackside hobo jungles and the perils of a culture of heavy drinking and drug use.

“Seriously, it takes its toll on you,” said rail rider Tommy as he celebrated his 37th birthday somewhat morosely at the festival, chugging back beer after beer from a Styrofoam cup. His calf bore a sketchy tattoo of a 40-ounce bottle framed by the words “F--- life.”

“I have had a stroke. I only have one lung, I’ve been stabbed a bunch. I’ve been shot — only a ricochet bullet. Alcoholism. I’ve hardly got a liver,” he said. “So there’s a lot of downsides to it.”

Like an addiction

Jessiah “Bud” Triplett and his road dog, Trixie, leave Britt after the National Hobo Convention, Aug. 10, 2014. He and the other riders will travel to the nearest rail yard, in Mason City, and catch the next available freight train.
Eli Hiller

There are currently nine major North American freight railroads. Operators point out that hopping freight is illegal and extremely dangerous and hope that the slide in hobo numbers in recent decades will continue.  

“You will always have people out there who look at the romance of the freight train hopper, and you will always have a few people out there who want to do that, but we would like to see that become less [because] it’s extremely dangerous,” said Robin Chapman, spokesman for Norfolk Southern, which transports freight in 22 states.

Some who experience the hazards of freight riding hop just one train and then stop. Among them is Marty Gage, the younger brother of the late hobo poet Richard “Iowa Blackie” Gage. Marty Gage recalled how he narrowly escaped serious injury when he leaped off a grain car in midwinter as it rolled through his intended destination of Hampton, Iowa, without stopping. 

“I hit the ground so hard, it tore off one of my snow boots. I never did find that thing, even next spring. And that was the last time I rode,” he recalled. “I definitely understand the appeal of throwing off the shackles and just living life on your own terms, but that’s not me. I put the shackles on, and I’m going to leave them there.”

But for some young riders — with severed family ties and dead-end jobs in their pasts and the lure of thousands of miles of track before them — the nomadic life is seductive.

“They should put a warning label that says, ‘When you start doing this, you're f---ed.’ It’s addictive. It’s like shooting heroin into your arm. It’s beautiful,” said DJ, 25, a rail rider from Cincinnati. He swigged whiskey as a friend tattooed TVSK, for TV Set Kids, on his knuckles in black ink.

For 25-year-old Adam Blumenthal, who resigned from a job with the Transportation Security Administration in Boston six years ago to ride the rails, only an “epiphany” could make him stop.

“You’ve been given the key to the country. You can go anywhere you want, anytime you want,” he said, sounding very much like Fortin. “Who would give up pure freedom?”

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