Riding the Rails: An adventure of a lifetime
May 17, 2011
I have been volunteering with the National Heritage Museum for just over 6 months as an Archivist and have had the opportunity to work with the collection donated by Errol Lincoln Uys; a history of teenage hoboes in America during the Great Depression. My time has been devoted to preserving the collection for future use (removing and photocopying post-it’s and notes, photocopying deteriorating pages and removing staples and metal paperclips along with safely storing the papers).
While working on the preservation of the materials I have been encouraged to read and explore the collection. The first 32 boxes of the collection are mainly comprised of firsthand accounts (hand written and typed) of thousands of experiences riding the rails during the Great Depression. Through my reading I have come across many common themes. Initially the hobo experience appears to be one of adventure; seeing the country from atop a train, traveling when and where one wanted and having no ties to daily responsibilities. However, reading between the lines of each account, the experience was also one of loneliness, hunger, fear and poverty. Many teenagers left home to alleviate the burden to the family. The life found on the road was no more secure then the life left behind, but it was surely an adventure of a lifetime. Whether dodging railroad bulls or local police, begging for scraps for a mulligan stew or riding precariously atop a train these experiences contributed to the American determination of ‘pulling one’s self up by their bootstraps’.
Each firsthand account details the trials and tribulations of riding the rails, bringing to life the themes and chapters of American history text books. A wealth of resources and history is housed within the collection, detailing the everyday experiences that create American history. I look forward to stepping back in time once a week during my time at the museum, reliving the experiences of the teenage hobo, hearing the whistle of the train and piecing together the daily struggle and adventure of the Great Depression.
Man smoking in train yard, ca. 1930. Unidentified photographer. Courtesy of Library of Congress.