Riding the Rails

Posted by | September 15, 2011

“From ‘middle class gentility to scrabble-ass poor,’ the undiscriminating Great Depression forced 4,000,000 Americans away from their homes and onto the tracks in search of food and lodging. Of this number, a disturbing 250,000 of the transients were children. Some left home because they felt they were a burden to their families; some fled homes shattered by the shame of unemployment and poverty. Some left because it seemed a great adventure. With the blessing of parents or as runaways, they hit the road and went in search of a better life.

“Public perceptions of the road kids differed. There were people who saw the American pioneer spirit embodied in the young wanderers. There were others who feared them as the vanguard of an American rabble potentially as dangerous as the young Fascists then on the march in Germany.

Boy hopping a freight train, 1940, by John Vachon
“For most of the young transients, riding the rails would not become a way of life. “After a while,” Jim Mitchell remarks,” you knew you had to get on with your life.” Those who found steady work abandoned the trains. Mitchell and many other young men got jobs with the CCC. Most teens returned home, and for some, transition was difficult. Their time on the rails marked a coming of age, a turning point when they moved out of childhood and became aware of the world. Some became advocates for social change. For teen rail rider John Fawcett, raised in a middle-class family in West Virginia, his experiences during the Great Depression shaped his perceptions of the world, leading to his involvement in the labor and antiwar movements. But for many others, the pain, uncertainty, and loneliness of life on the road fostered in them a strong, but conservative, desire for steady employment and the security of home and family.”

RIDING THE RAILS: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression (Routledge, New York, 2003)

appalachian+history appalachian+culture appalachia history+of+appalachia

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