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Cover image for Riding the rails : teenagers on the move during the Great Depression
Riding the rails : teenagers on the move during the Great Depression
Publication Information:
New York : TV Books, ©1999.
Physical Description:
303 pages, 32 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Catching Out. The Interviews: John Fawcett, 1936. The Interviews: Arvel Pearson, 1930-42. The Interviews: Phoebe Eaton DeHart, 1938 -- Hard Travelin'. The Interviews: Rene Champion, 1937-41. The Interviews: Clarence Lee, 1929-31. The Interviews: Tiny Boland, 1934 -- Hitting the Stem. The Interviews: James San Jule, 1930-32. The Interviews: Jan van Hee, 1937-38. The Interviews: Clydia Williams, 1932-35 -- The Way Out. The Interviews: Charley Bull, 1930. The Interviews: Jim Mitchell, 1933. The Interviews: Robert Symmonds, 1934-42.
Contains interviews with individuals who rode the railway freight cars as teenagers.

Contains primary source material.


Call Number
973.917 Uys

On Order



During the Great Depression, more than 250,000 children left their homes and hopped on freight trains crisscrossing the country. They were looking for work and adventure; some wanted to leave their homes, and some had to. Riding the Rails gives us the stories of their travels in their own words and tells us what happened to them in the years since.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

This erratic account of the 250,000 "boxcar boys and girls" who traversed the country during the Great Depression amounts to an oral history of the seldom-studied lives of teenage hoboes. Using material gathered for a documentary film of the same title (made by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell, the author's son and daughter-in-law), Uys draws on interviews, letters and other fragments from thousands of former rail-riders who answered an announcement in Modern Maturity magazine seeking reminiscences about their lives. A number of anecdotes offer insight into the desperation that led teens to leave impoverished homes. A sign at a Louisiana cafe, for example, stated succinctly: "Dishwasher WantedÄonly college graduates need apply." Jobs were so scarce that one 18-year-old climbed eagerly on a locomotive in Ohio after hearing there might be work at a Los Angeles hotdog stand. The poignancy of such moments is diminished, however, because the various episodes are hitched together like random cars on a freight train and the text takes on the aimless movement of its young subjects as they drift in search of a hot meal. The most accomplished passages frame the vicissitudes of hobo life within the larger context of Depression-era politics. For many former hoboes, New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps offered the only alternative to hunger, jail and degrading hardship. Most remarkably, perhaps, this book shows how the occasional generosities encountered on the road instilled in these wanderers a lifelong ethos of humility and compassion toward others. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

An estimated 250,000 teenagers rode the rails across the nation during the Great Depression, in search of jobs. Some left to ease the burden on their families or were encouraged to strike out on their own, but others were inspired by adventurous tales of the time. Whatever the motive, they all faced the physically and emotionally harrowing life of tramping across the U.S on fast-moving trains, seeing a nation wracked by economic collapse. Uys profiles some of those youth, now senior citizens recalling the physical danger, the cruelty of railroad detectives, the hunger and restless despair, the random kindness of individuals, and the camaraderie among the travelers. Uys also highlights the special hazards for women (often disguised as boys) and black youth faced with discriminatory treatment. The creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Youth Administration, and the onset of World War II ended this troubled period in U.S. history. --Vanessa Bush

Choice Review

Riding the Rails is a companion book to an award-winning documentary film of the same name. Uys, the coproducer of the film, quotes heavily from the American History Project--the organizational name under which thousands of letters and hundreds of firsthand accounts from teenage hobos who had ridden the freight trains during the Great Depression were solicited for the film--to write a lively portrait of their lives. The book is divided into four sections: the teenagers' motivation for leaving home; their experience of riding the rails; life on the road; and getting a job. Uys admires his subjects but does not romanticize them. His is a pluralistic interpretation that presents various reasons why the 250,000 white and black, male and female teenagers left home, ranging from financial need to a search for adventure. Variety also characterized their experiences; some were treated badly and became disillusioned about life on the road, while others enjoyed the excitement and found jobs and security as a result of their travels. Of particular value are the three verbatim interviews that follow each section. The 54 evocative photographs from the Library of Congress contribute to the book's usefulness. All levels. E. W. Carp; Pacific Lutheran University

Library Journal Review

When Uys's son and daughter-in-law solicited reminiscences for a documentary film on teenagers' lives on the rails between 1929 and 1941, some 3000 people replied, often at length. Many looked back fondly on a time when they truly felt free: "There is no feeling in the world like sitting in a side-door Pullman and watching the world go by, listening to the clickety-clack of the wheels, hearing that old steam whistle blowing for crossings and towns." Yet the overall tone of their memories is somber. "You were always with people on the trains but...everyone on the road... was lonely." "Kids on the road didn't know how to play....We never thought about being teenagers. All we thought about was surviving." This is an elegantly presented and quietly moving collection of firsthand reminiscences, capturing a unique moment in American history. Uys, a veteran writer and editor, is the author of the historical novel Brazil. Enthusiastically recommended for all public libraries.ÄDavid Keymer, California State Univ., Stanislaus (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

An Army of Children on the Loose Rugged Individualists When School Was Out "I Knew I'd Made a Mistake"
The Wrong Side of the Tracks
In Harm's Way Bitter Harvest
A New Deal for Youth Catching Out Camelot Crashed and Burned
There Was Never Any Money Go Fend for Yourself
Scenery Bums Boxcar Girls Hopping
Their First Freight
The InterviewsJohn Fawcett, 1936 and Arvel Pearson, 1930-42 and Phoebe Eaton DeHart, 1938
Hard Travelin' Face into the Wind Fellow Travelers Danger Ahead
"See America First-Travel by Rail" Black Road Kids The Bulls
The Interviews Rene Champion, 1937-41Clarence Lee, 1929-31 and Tiny Boland, 1934
Hitting the Stem Hoover's Prodigal
Children Hungry Times "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum"
The Kindness of Strangers Have Pity on the Boy
A Good Place for a Handout Mean Streets
In the Jailhouse Bughouse Hotel The Jungle
The InterviewsJames San Jule, 1930-32 and Jan van Hee, 1937-38 and Clydia Williams, 1932-35
The Way Out Looking for work Fire Fighters
Keep on Moving For Richer, for Poorer Vagrant Ambition
Harvest Tramps Cotton Pickers
The Tree Army
The Last Ride End of an Era
A Rite of Passage Lessons of the Road
The InterviewsCharley Bull, 1930 and Jim Mitchell, 1933 and Robert Symmonds, 1934-42