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Riding the Freight Trains

allen griggsallen griggs Member Posts: 32,744 ✭✭✭
edited July 1 in General Discussion

In my mis-spent youth, I used to ride the freight trains.  I had crossed the continent several times, hitch hiking.  Once, I rode a bicycle from Georgia to Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
But my favorite means of hobo travel was riding the freight trains.
In this photo, I am taking a stroll on top of a box car in Tennessee.  My buddy John and I rode the freights from Atlanta, to Denver, John's home town.  John had told his mom that we were going to ride the freight trains, and she immediatley wired him the cash to ride the Greyhound.  John got the check, but, he decided to stick with me and ride the trains. Ideally you want to ride in a box car.  However, there were no open box cars on this train!
We were in the the big Chattanooga yards, looking for a fast freight to Memphis.  We saw that there were several cars carrying autos.   The autos were stacked three cars high.  And on the top deck, we saw an El Camino.  This was a car that had the cab of an automobile, but the bed of a pickup.  We scrambled up about 17 feet above the rails,  and put our gear in the bed of the El Camino, and we sat there, riding backwards at 70 mph as the freight train rolled across Tennessee.
John was sitting in the El Camino taking pictures,  and I took a stroll on the adjacent box car.
April, 1977.

We were in for a rude awakening in Memphis.  Little did we know, they were having problems with "locals" breaking in  to autos on the freight trains, and stealing stereos.  The Memphis train car authorities had brought in 8, plain clothes and bad * railroad cops from Texas, just to catch hobos on freight trains in Memphis.
If you have ever driven through Memphis on I 40, you can see the giant railroad bridge crossing the Mississippi there adjacent to the interstate.
John and I laid low in the Memphis yards, but once we got over the river, we sat up in the El Camino to see the sights.  The view of the river from 17 feet high is fantastic, plus, we had a great sunset.  John was firing away with the Nikon.  And, the damn Texas yard cops spotted us!   Believe it or not, they stopped the train right above the river, and backed it up into the Memphis yards and we were arrested.
The Texas yard cops were pretty rough with us, they took us to the Memphis city jail.  But, they saw that we had done no damage to the autos on the train.  They grilled us for an hour.  They couldn't figure out why some college boys would ride freight trains.  They didn't even print us or photograph us.  In fact, they told us "Last month we caught two  boys riding the train over that river and we stopped the train, and we threw those pieces of s***  into the river off of the bridge!"   That bridge is about 170 feet above the Mississippi.  I thought they were exaggerating but I wasn't sure.  My buddy John was a college boy from Boulder Colorado and he was shaking in his boots.
The bottom line was, they knew we had been in that El Camino since Chattanooga, and we had done no damage to the car.  The cops were befuddled, they just had two boys who were hitching a ride but not vandalizing the train.  They told us they would turn us loose.
  But they said,  "Boys, don't let us catch y'all on a freight train in Memphis tonight. You won't like what happens."
We got the message and we went down to I 40 and we hitch hiked across the Big River, and we caught the next train several miles away in Arkansas.
Every time I crossed the Mississippi, for the past ten years,  in the Big Rig on I 40, I thought about that night, long ago, getting busted riding the freight trains in Memphis.


In this photo, my buddy Marc takes a smoke break at 75 mph on a fast freight from Atlanta to Chattanooga, August 1972.
Not all hobos are white trash.  Marc was 19 in this photo but he went on to get a Phd in law from Emory University and he was Valedictorian.



In this photo I am on the rail of the third engine at 75 mph on a Canada Pacific fast freight, near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in August 1973.  Once again there were no open box cars.  Marc and I were in the yards in Calgary at 10pm.  We went up to the engineers and asked them if we could ride in the engine!  There were three engines, and the engineers were only in the first engine.
The engineer said, "Do you boys have any booze with you?"
I said, "We have a bottle of red wine."
He said "Well, give me a swig, and you can get on board!"   Little railroad joke.
The engineer was very friendly.  And he said to us, "I can tell you boys are Americans.  Let me tell you, we have some real hard * yard cops here in Canada, they are uniformed and they are armed!  When we pull in to a station, keep low!  If the yard cops catch you it is an automatic three days in jail!"
And the engineer said, "Don't you boys pull any levers!"
We rolled 800 miles across Canada in 24 hours, when they say "fast freight" in Canada they mean it.
We did stop about every 4 hours.  In those yards we laid on the floor and several times, we could hear the yard cops standing outside the window, asking one another if they should bother climbing up and looking for hobos.
  Thankfully they never did.  It is hot in Saskatchewan in August!  At several of those stops, the engineers came back to our engine and gave us 12 ounce bottles of ice cold water.   Bottled water had not really been invented in those days, and these bottles said "Coca Cola" on them.  For a couple of Atlanta boys it made us feel right at home.  Those engineers told us that they had seen the uniformed yard cops looking into our engine and was surprised we didn't get busted.   I guess we did a good job of laying low.



In this photo my buddy Richard is enjoying himself at 70 mph on a fast freight from Atlanta to Chattanooga in August 1972.    Why there was a steel rail across the door, and why Richard was hanging out there I am not sure, could be alcohol was involved.


It is hard to express the feeling of freedom one gets when riding a freight train, especially when in an open box car.  I can still see John and me sitting in the open door of a box car, rolling across Kansas at midnight, passing back and forth a pint of Jack Daniels, those rails making a rhythimic "click   clack " sound, the full moon shining in our eyes.
It has been said that the only two free people in America are the billionaire, and the hobo.  Neither one has to answer to anybody.

In my freight train days my theme song was Glen Campbell's greatest hit, "Gentle on My Mind."  A song about riding freight trains.   See, I had a girlfriend in Atlanta, very cute blonde who wanted to marry me.  I loved her but I didn't want to be tied down in marriage I wanted the freedom of the rails.
As Glen said:
"It's not clingin' to the rocks and ivy
Planted on their columns now that bind me
Or somethin' that somebody said
Because they thought we'd been together walkin'
It's just knowin' that the world will not be cursing or forgiving
When I walk along some railroad track and find
That you're movin' on the back roads by the rivers of my memory
And for hours you're just gentle on my mind


I dip my cup of soup back from a gurgling crackling cauldron in some train yard
My beard a roughning coal-pile, and a dirty hat pulled low, across my face
Through cupped hands, 'round a tin can, I pretend to hold you to my breast, and find
That you're waiting on the back roads, by the rivers of my memory,
Ever smiling, ever gentle on my mind."

Comments

  • jimdeerejimdeere Member Posts: 19,476 ✭✭✭
    Great story, Allen. I’m about your age and I would never have had the cajones to take trips like that. 
  • dreherdreher Member Posts: 6,999 ✭✭✭
    WOW!!!  You impressed me big time!!!  I hate to admit this, but your balls are way bigger than mine!!!  I am truly envious of you!!!
  • Ditch-RunnerDitch-Runner Member Posts: 18,469 ✭✭✭
     Thanks great story and photos  a great memory to have and brag about 
           I remembered some one posted a few years back about riding the rails but  I had confused who posted it 
     I will  give you credit for being so care free , brave or dumb. maybe a  combination of both  mostly  a bit envious I did not have the nerve  to do it   ;)
  • mrmike08075mrmike08075 Member Posts: 11,908 ✭✭✭

    An America that no longer exists - is gone from our field of vision...

    There are a series of YouTube channels that document some young kids who ride the rails or rode the rails that are fascinating - but this chapter in the great American fantasy has long been closed - and while correctly glorified by some was not a net positive trend or healthy lifestyle...

    You sir are deep and wise and may have caught the clock on this experience at the right moment in time - and you were very lucky and foolish and young and dumb...

    I admire your experience - I salute you.

    Mike

    .
  • waltermoewaltermoe Member Posts: 251 ✭✭
    Great story. I myself rode trains for 42 years, course I got payed for it account of I worked for the railroad.  In the early days of my career we use to help people out, find a train that was going to where they wanted to go, a lot of the transits where traveling to get some where, where they had a job waiting for them.  As time went on the railroad frowned more on people hoping trains, and the officials would escort them off the property, if they caught them,  latter on they just had them arrested.  The drinking you talked about; ya I can believe that, them days are long gone now though,  use to look forward to going to work back then.  lol.   The only thing I would question you on would be the speed you wrote of,  the fastest main line in the United States use to be between Galesburg ILL.  and Quincy ILL. back in the late 60s early 70s. freight was 70mph and passenger was 79mph,  not to say that we didn't sometimes run over the speed limit.  I'm not saying that I used a lock wrench to lock the speed recorder down.  The new motors they use today all have event recorders.   Anyway thanks for a walk down memory lane.       
  • Horse Plains DrifterHorse Plains Drifter Member Posts: 35,215 ✭✭✭
    Great story Allen, thanks for sharing!
  • GrasshopperGrasshopper Member Posts: 13,919 ✭✭✭
    I remember you posting some of those long ago. More nuts than me. I took a car.
  • BrookwoodBrookwood Member Posts: 7,565 ✭✭✭
    Great story Allen! Thanks for sharing!    

    During the same era, I did a lot of traveling via thumb out arm extended.  Times were very different and I met a lot of nice folks.  When I got my first car, I returned such favors many times.  Alas......nevermore
  • He DogHe Dog Member Posts: 48,418 ✭✭✭
    Youth and bad decisions.  It is a miracle most of us survive to adulthood.
  • us55840us55840 Member Posts: 30,808 ✭✭✭✭
    edited July 1
    Before entering the military in 1966 I used to hitch hike from where i was working to my home town frequently ... just over 200 miles.  I'd leave on Friday afternoon and have to be back by 8 AM Monday morning.
    Never had an issue and everyone was friendly.  Never had to walk far .... maybe a mile or two at most before getting a ride.
    There were times I covered that 200 miles as quick or quicker than I would drive it myself.  Some folks, mostly salesmen, drove really fast!
     B) 

    As a side note; never jumped a train.  A classmate in the 8th grade lost his leg to a moving train so stayed clear of them.
    "This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it." Abraham Lincoln
  • kimikimi Member Posts: 44,050 ✭✭✭
    Good to read about your hobo days once more, Allen...and to see some of the pictures again, too.  Reminds me of the story that my Dad told me when I was young.  It was about the men riding the rails during the Great Depression and looking for work. 

    He left East Texas and ended up in California.  California obviously did not interest him so he rode the rails back to Texas and his family about three months later.  On the way back, there was no room on the cars for some of the trip, so he rode under a car with little support for his body to rest on like some other people did as well.  During this part of the ride, he used his belt to lash himself to the car in  some fashion to better hold on.  To this day, that is still difficult to imagine.  (See pictures of men riding under the boxcars at this link:  https://www.bing.com/images/search?q=riding+the+rails+underneath+rail+cars&id=0CD4663AD6CC738601478E11ADB104A365FD840A&form=IQFRBA&first=1&scenario=ImageBasicHover  )
    What's next?
  • Horse Plains DrifterHorse Plains Drifter Member Posts: 35,215 ✭✭✭
    kimi said:
      On the way back, there was no room on the cars for some of the trip, so he rode under a car with little support for his body to rest on like some other people did as well.  During this part of the ride, he used his belt to lash himself to the car in  some fashion to better hold on.  
    Yes, and sometimes the people would climb up between the brake actuating rods, and the bottom of the car floor. This was mainly to avoid detection, as the man catcher had to basically be on his hands and knees to see a man hiding up there. This is where the term "riding the rods" came from. Desperate  people in desperate times.
  • mogley98mogley98 Member Posts: 17,200 ✭✭✭
    I can see the Neadrathal in ya!

    Why don't we go to school and work on the weekends and take the week off!
  • allen griggsallen griggs Member Posts: 32,744 ✭✭✭
    I also did a lot of hitchiking back in the seventies.  One summer, I took two weeks off of work.  I hitchhiked from Atlanta to Boulder Colorado for a two day music festival.  Then back east to Duluth Minnesota, north into Canada and around the Great Lakes, then back into America to visit my brother in Putney Vermont.  Stayed there for 3 days and then hitchiked back to Atlanta.   Sixteen days it was around 5,000 miles.

    The hitchiking was pretty good back then.   If I got a ride with a 60 year old guy back in 1970, then he would tell me about hitchiking during the Depression.  He said that the people were poor but they were friendly.   There was a feeling of friendship among the people.  He said a Mom and Dad and a kid in the back would stop and give you a ride back in 1935.  That was unheard of in the seventies.
    I think the hitchiking is much worse today than it was in the seventies.
  • allen griggsallen griggs Member Posts: 32,744 ✭✭✭
    edited July 3
  • WearyTravelerWearyTraveler Member Posts: 1,982 ✭✭✭
    I’ll tell ya, I’m envious!  I, to this day, would love to ride the rails for a while.  But old age and current environment make it impossible!  
    ”People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."
    - GEORGE ORWELL -
  • WearyTravelerWearyTraveler Member Posts: 1,982 ✭✭✭
    The early 70s were a great time to be alive.  I joined the Corps in 73.  Man, did life change!
    ”People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."
    - GEORGE ORWELL -
  • kimikimi Member Posts: 44,050 ✭✭✭
    I also did a lot of hitchiking back in the seventies.  One summer, I took two weeks off of work.  I hitchhiked from Atlanta to Boulder Colorado for a two day music festival.  Then back east to Duluth Minnesota, north into Canada and around the Great Lakes, then back into America to visit my brother in Putney Vermont.  Stayed there for 3 days and then hitchiked back to Atlanta.   Sixteen days it was around 5,000 miles.

    The hitchiking was pretty good back then.   If I got a ride with a 60 year old guy back in 1970, then he would tell me about hitchiking during the Depression.  He said that the people were poor but they were friendly.   There was a feeling of friendship among the people.  He said a Mom and Dad and a kid in the back would stop and give you a ride back in 1935.  That was unheard of in the seventies.
    I think the hitchiking is much worse today than it was in the seventies.
    I can't say that I ever recall my father ever passed a hitchhiker on the road.   His life had been hard like that of his ancestors.  It just was not in him to pass a man by.
    What's next?
  • SW0320SW0320 Member Posts: 1,085 ✭✭✭
    Great pictures and story.  I wish I could have been more unstructured to do things like that.  I always have to have a plan.  In the time frame you listed can't remeber exactly where I was except I do know I was somewheres on the high seas on a Destroyer.
  • Smitty500magSmitty500mag Member Posts: 12,547 ✭✭✭
    My grandpa on my dad's side of the family worked on the family farm in East Tennessee and when he turned 19 he decided he would go see the world. So he hit the rails and rode all across the country for a year or so. Said he almost froze to death one time on a train that went to Wisconsin in the winter.

    Toward the end of his adventure he arrived in Oologah, OK where he met my grandma to be. A love story written in the heavens. He went back home to get things in order and buy a car and then he drove back out to Oologah and married grandma and brought her back to Tennessee. They were together almost 70 years and had 4 boys.


  • dreherdreher Member Posts: 6,999 ✭✭✭
    I just finished up rereading that post.  I'm still envious!!  You've got some incredible memories.  

    I've got some incredible memories also.  Most of them feature me being incredibly stupid.  I shake my head when I make the mistake of remembering my total stupidity.   :/
  • allen griggsallen griggs Member Posts: 32,744 ✭✭✭
    edited July 3


    Last night they played "The Great Train Robbery" on tv.  Sean Connery did all his stunts in this film.






    I think Sean Connery looks just like me!  In fact I think he copied me, what do you think?   I rode that fast freight from Chattanooga, one year before this movie was made.
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