Riding the Rails

Riding the Rails--Book and DVD from PBS

Riding RailsAt the height of the Great Depression, more than a quarter million teenagers were living on the road in America, many criss-crossing the country by illegally hopping freight trains.  This book and film presents the little-known story of teen hobos during the 1930’s, a time of desperation and bitter hardship.  These young Americans were looking for a better life; what they found was a mixture of freedom, camaraderie, misery and loneliness.

Riding the Rails vividly combines the clear-eyed memories of witnesses with archival footage of teens riding atop speeding trains and newsreel interviews with lean-bodied kids full of bravado.   One of the interview subjects was Jim Mitchell who left his Wisconsin home at the age of sixteen. Rene Champion was the same age when he left his home in Pennsylvania, as were John Fawcett from West Virginia and Bob "Guitar Whitey" Symmonds of Washington, who picked fruit in California to survive. In Louisiana, young Clarence Lee's father told him that there simply wasn't enough food to feed the family; the boy left home the next day. All began riding the rails.

Teenagers who were new to the road had high hopes about where their journeys would lead them. Some tried to earn money and send it home. But work was scarce in a nation suffering from widespread unemployment. And young migrants were usually paid only a fraction of adult wages. "Once I worked for a man who wanted me to unload a coal car," recounts George Rhodes in letter. "I stood there and threw down the coal. I worked all day. He gave me two tomatoes."

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