Death of the American Hobo (Documentary)

Death of the American Hobo (Documentary)

BEN: Your heart’s racing.
Obviously, you’re hoping that
we wouldn’t get caught.

-There’s something about the
hobo that has to be recorded
in American history.
BEN: The whole time we were
asking ourselves, what is the
story here?
What is the story of the hobo?
What is a hobo?
not like people think.
It’s hard, like, a hard life.
-It’s speeding up!
Go go go go go go!


is Britt, Iowa.
It’s a small town of about
2,000 people out in the
central Iowa cornfields.
Over the last 112 years,
Britt has become
known for one thing–
an annual event called The
National Hobo Convention.
There’s a hobo jungle, a hobo
museum, and a hobo cemetery.
In 1900, Britt was just a newly
incorporated farming
community in search of
migrant workers.
The town founders enticed the
hobos to move their annual
gathering from Chicago
to Britt.

A tradition was born that still
brings self-described
hobos to Britt every year
for one August weekend.

HOBO MIKE: I’ve been traveling
trains since I was eight, and
as a living since ’63.
FROG: I started riding trains
when I was 20 years old.
I’m 62 years old now.
I’m Wrong Way.
My nephew gave me that name
in the early ’70s.
HOBO SPIKE: I started in 1952,
and I used a train to go from
one place to another
to find work, and
that’s how I survived.
AARON SMITH: Most historians
agree the hobo emerged after
the Civil War.
Young men from both sides set
off across the country in
search of work.
By the turn of the century, the
hobo had become part of
the fabric of America.
But today, what was once a
substantial culture and way of
life seems close
to extinction.
We wanted to see what was left
of the hobo community, and we
hoped we’d find it in Britt.
In our minds, there was only one
way to travel to the hobo
convention– the
freight train.
We began our journey in Oakland,
California, hoping to
travel 1,900 miles on the
rails in five days.

AARON SMITH: These are the maps
that show the different
rail lines all over California,
with like, special
zoom-ins that show you all the
little small towns that you
can stop in, different crew
changes, and this is something
totally like, pre-iPhone.
Now you can totally just
GPS your location.
But these maps were really
helpful for a lot of people
for a long time.
Before a cohesive network of
roads was laid across America,
the train was the fastest way
to get from place to place.
Early hobos learned to ride by
swapping information with
other travelers they met along
the way in hobo jungles.

Chris is from Virginia and
spends his time hopping
freight trains around the
country for pleasure.
Our friend Ben lives in San
Francisco and had a couple
weeks off work and decided
to join us.
BEN: I wasn’t sure what
to expect of the trip.
I knew it was going to be an
adventure, but I didn’t know
exactly what the details
and the minutiae of
the trip would hold.

We woke up that morning, hoping
to catch a train.
But we woke up, got ready,
there was no train there.
And as more time passed, we
realized that the information
we had gotten was probably

AARON SMITH: We decided to wait
for another train, but a
worker spotted us in the yard
and called the bull.
Bull is an old-time term
for a railroad cop.
It’s always been a cat and mouse
game between the hobo
and the bull.
Back in the day, bulls had
no problem killing hobos.
Today, it’s a little
bit different.

-We don’t really have
hobos anymore.
-A transient, a hobo, vagrant,
is a guy who participates on
the rail property–
trespass, hopping
freights, yeah.
-And a tramp, tramp’s in
the middle, right?
-What did they call it?
I like that.
That was back in the day, man.
That was back in the day.
Tramps, hobos.
-When have you seen somebody
with a broomstick–
-A tramp with a bag tied around
his shoulder, right?
All right, guys.
You know how to get out
of here, right?
Don’t come back, all right?
-Don’t come back.
AARON SMITH: There seem
to be very few people
hopping trains anymore.
The hobo seems like
a museum piece.
It’s like a joke, a word
nobody uses anymore.
We didn’t want to go to the
Oakland jail, so we headed to
Amtrak station with our tails
between our legs.
We got out to the next crew
change stop on the line–
Roseville, California.

As soon as we got to Roseville,
there was a train
getting ready to take off.

Bad decision.
A conductor saw us and we got
pulled off the train five
miles outside of town.
Uh, we just got pulled
off this train here.
AARON SMITH: Yeah, yeah, it
was the second time today.
Morale was low.
Chris decided to set off on
his own to Denver, and we
hopped a gambling bus
to Reno, Nevada.

JACKSON FAGER: Now we’re in
Reno, Nevada, feeling a little
better about our situation, and
hoping a train comes in
the next couple hours.

AARON SMITH: In the yard,
avoiding bulls and workers is
one concern.
Finding a rideable
car is another.
Some of the wells on these
double-stacked cars have a
cubby hole you can
ride in, but we
weren’t seeing anything.

The locomotive at the back of
the train, called the rear
unit, seemed like
our best bet.
But it’s risky.
Workers periodically
check the cars.

Lucky for us, the train
aired up, and we
finally got on our way.

We’re indoors, Amtrak style, and
we’ve got these big plushy
seats, continuing along.

We’re in the middle
of nowhere.
For the first 100 miles,
there were no roads, no
highways, no nothing.
It was just desert as far
as the eye could see.
It was beautiful.
It was amazing to kind of get
that, see what that was like,
vast expanses of nature.

MEDICINE MAN: Now, everybody
thinks that the real hobo life
is great, and it’s part of
wanderlust, but it’s not.
The hobo life is a very,
very dangerous life.
ADMAN: Sometimes painful, when
everything is all fucked up.
You’re looking around, and
the bulls are out there.
BEN: It felt like something out
of a special operations
combat mission.

We spotted a grain train.
We knew that this was our
ticket out of Elko.
Go go go go go!

ADMAN: Riding on a flat car with
a full moon, and watching
It’s a game that gives you
a fucking hard-on, I
can tell you that.

do it, it’s with you
the rest your life.
You want to keep on the move.

ADMAN: We see the world
in a different light.

FROG: Always total, absolute
freedom, every day of my life.
HOBO SPIKE: I don’t think
there’s any better way to see
this great world of ours,
especially our nation, than
from a freight train.

AARON SMITH: We were crossing
the Great Salt Lake.
The air was cool, and
the smell of sulfur
rose from the water.
It was the most undisturbed
stretch of natural beauty any
of us had ever seen.

The train forces you to slow
down and take it all in.
All the frustrations and
anxieties of life back in
civilization seemed
to disappear.

HOBO SPIKE: When you’re on the
rails, if you don’t get
caught, there’s no one to tell
you what to do, when to go to
bed, when to get up,
what to eat.
You’re on your own for 100%.
AARON SMITH: Although we were
loving the ride, we were
running out of water fast.
After close to 24 hours on the
train, we were hungry, tired,
dirty, and dehydrated.

Well, our train stopped here
in Green River, Wyoming.
It’s just a little railroad town
here in southern Wyoming.
Just kind of roamed around and
got the vibe of the town.
HOBO SPIKE: Then when you get
into a community, of course
you have to fit into society,
so you have to abide by laws
at that time.
But if you’re by yourself,
you don’t have to pay
attention to any law.
AARON SMITH: So we walked over
this bridge that we’re sitting
under now, probably about
110 degrees, dry heat.
BEN: Just took a dip
in the Green River.
After four or five days not
showering, it felt amazing.
AARON SMITH: I’m gonna go
get in there right now.
BEN: Our days have
been very full.
We haven’t gotten
a lot of sleep.
It’s been a few hours here, a
few hours there, trying to hop
on trains successfully,
which we sometimes
have, sometimes haven’t.
We’re always on the move trying
to get to our end goal,
which is Britt.
AARON SMITH: No eastbound trains
were coming through.
The sun went down, and we
enjoyed the solitude of the
Wyoming landscape.
Up to this point, we hadn’t seen
any other travelers on
the trains.

At the turn of the century,
there were around a million
hobos on the rails.
After the Depression,
that number doubled.
Hobos had organized their own
union, and there were over 60
hobo colleges all across
the country.
Boxcars were crowded
with riders.
But something happened midway
through the century.
Maybe it was American
Where there were once millions
on the road, today, there’s
probably a couple thousand.
In my experience, you hardly
ever see anyone on the rails.

The next morning, we decided to
try our luck in the Green
River yard.

-Hey, man.
-How about yourself?

-We’re hitchhiking.

-Sorry, man.

-Oh, really?
-All right, thank you.

-OK, man.
-Thank you.
AARON SMITH: After getting
warned by the cops to leave,
we went back to our original
spot under the bridge.

MEDICINE MAN: Today, you don’t
want to jump a train.
It’s so dangerous, because the
old steam locomotives, it was
chug, chug, chug, and pretty
soon, it was [ENGINE NOISE].
But today, in two minutes,
they’re flying.

AARON SMITH: Our train stopped
in the middle of the yard, and
we didn’t know why.

AARON SMITH: An hour went by,
and it felt like an eternity.

Each time you get on
the train, it’s
a role of the die–
a unique and unpredictable
Perhaps that’s one
reason we do it–
to gamble, to relinquish control
completely, and give
ourselves to fate and luck.

That was one of the faster
ones I’ve hopped on.
You kind of had to run alongside
and kind of throw
yourself up.
But we all made it.
Really grateful for that.

The train out of Green River
had three units and looked
like it would blaze across
Wyoming, but it puttered along
the entire time at
35 miles an hour.
It was time for a
change of plans.
We arrived in Laramie, Wyoming
on Friday morning, with still
800 miles to go to
get to Britt.
We were behind schedule,
and the
convention had already started.
We got off here in Laramie,
Wyoming because the train was
so damn slow.
Rent a cars were too expensive,
the Greyhound would
take two days, so we ended
up getting this U-Haul.
12-hour drive ahead of us, and
we’ve gotta haul ass to Britt.

In keeping with the spirit of
our trip, we picked up all the
hitchhikers we saw
along the way.
JOE YOUNG: Hey, what’s
up, guys?
I’m Joe Young.
I’ve been on the road for about
four or five years.
The only way I get around
is on bicycle.

AARON SMITH: We picked
up another guy.
This is Alex.
He’s coming from Colorado.
ALEX: How’s it going?
AARON SMITH: It didn’t take us
long to fill up the back of
the U-Haul.

After six grueling days
of traveling, we
finally arrived in Brit.
We were ready to hang out with
hundreds of hobos and swap
stories about our travels
on the rails.
Happy Hobo Days!

-Happy Hobo Days!
-What we found instead was a
family-friendly event with a
bunch of tourists.
BEN: Just a number of
townspeople, big farm
tractors, fancy or unusual cars,
and homemade floats.
People– not hobos.
-All aboard!
-The hobo convention has gone
county fair mainstream.
This wasn’t the wild, drunken,
turn of the century event that
brought 1,800 hobos
here in the 1940s.
-Well, we’re serving mulligan
stew, and it is what the
traditional hobo
used to serve.
Meat– we have pork in ours–
and then it has beef
flavoring, and pork flavoring,
and then vegetables, barley,
and rice in it, and
then water.
-Every year for the past 112
years, the hobos have elected
a hobo king and queen.
-This year, our new
queen is Angel.
And your new king is
Minnesota Jim.

-It’s an important moment for
them, especially now that most
of the hobos are senior

The hobo jungle in Britt is a
well maintained park on the
edge of town.
It used to be a pretty
wild place.
This is not the same.
They bring in like a family
affair, and a history thing,
and people learning.
Because the hobo, you wouldn’t
be finding no children in an
old camp, you know
what I mean?
People really was kind of
sleeping out, and across the
tracks or in the bush.
It was more like a jungle.

AARON SMITH: Today, there’s
a lot of rules.
No drinking, no drugs,
no unleashed dogs.
It’s become the kind of place
that people used to become
hobos to get away from.

Most of the hobos we met were
retired from riding trains.
Living an itinerant life for
decades takes its toll.
MEDICINE MAN: A modern-day
hobo, probably in my
estimation, is getting to the
point where it’s rubber tire
hobos that come together
and perpetuate history.
AARON SMITH: The convention
has become a shadow of its
former self.
The city’s turned it
into a parody.
There are still plenty young
people out there riding the
rails for adventure, but those
who call themselves hobos and
travel around looking for
work are a dying breed.
FROG: And it’s still there.
Though I’m not riding freight
trains, it’s still there.
I still want to ride.

AARON SMITH: Out on the rails,
we slowed down and experienced
an adventure that was
once a way of life
for a lot of people.
The train tracks persist on,
relics on the landscape, entry
points into the hidden world.
We felt a deep nostalgia for a
time that’s passed and sadness
for the American hobo, fast
disappearing down the
westbound track.
FROG: I have one final ride, and
it’s my westbound journey.
-For the moments of happiness,
for the love, for the moments
of disappointments, for
everything, hobo is thankful
to the railroad.

100 thoughts on “Death of the American Hobo (Documentary)”

  1. Poem titled Beginning West.
    Beginning West I wandered,
    Through trials & tribulations in all the days long,
    And always through towns, & the sight of people,
    Urged on with hope of a young's man luck,
    I believed I carried truth, faith & charity.
    The mix & mingle of a proper life,
    And did pretend to know my spoken language, with plan.
    And looked ahead, only I imagined seen
    Of what there was before.
    The path too much like aimless life,
    Where my thinking comes & goes with the seeing, 
    Coming on by it, & one part is sore
    From looks having touched it.
    And again this spell did break: once more.
    I watched the city exposed,
    And gazed on ahead, but to no gain
    Of all else had been seen
    Like one on a last quest
    To walk in fear & dread,
    But soon there came a thought in me,
    No warning, no alarm made:
    Its clarity was not here.
    The meaning of life must be on ahead.
    There must be enough time.

  2. Yeah, real hobo's never drank booze. and played music. just like this hobo day fair. No fights, no smelly unwashed people carrying all they owned with them . . . .gimme a break.

  3. Hard riding the rails anymore. Use to be catwalks on top of the Boxcars you could loop your belt through so you wouldn't fall off if you fell asleep. Cars are built to modern now. There was also cages underneath near the axels if you weren't going far and you could put up with the noise of the breaks squealing. There was also this bang as the cars took up the slack. It would start at the front and work its way back the length of the train. Not the same nowadays, the bulls got radios to warn the guys working the cars. Just not the same.


  5. Love to do it, but not here in Australia, 1000 miles of desert and you saw how fast they went through their water. Thing i know about the U.S Rail network is that once you had a lot of railroads there, but gradually over time, they have been bought up under about 6 main companies , and a lot of lines closed, or not a lot of regular traffic. I believe in a few years people will be tracked (via their phones and other internet capable devices) so anyone where they are not supposed to be, or walk past a facial recognition camera system, is going to get noticed even in an empty yard. which is a shame..i would say time is ticking down.

  6. Would you let a homeless stranger move into you house with you?

    No you wouldn't.

    Now you know why people don't want them around their property.

  7. You straight up could have locked them in the back of that truck….and drove them a thousand miles in the wrong direction….. That takes a lot of trust

  8. Jack from the titanic was a hobo and he finnesed hes way on the titanic and in the history books he may have been broke but hes spirit was rich

  9. How anybody can watch vice and not see the blatant political propaganda is beyond help. Vicenis owned by Disney for chrisakes

  10. You could stay on the family farm barely surviving or you could hop on thr rails and become a meat eater. There used to be MORE THAN PLENTY migrant work to make money be happy and live a satisfied life. Not to mention you can stop riding the rails anytime you like, most just didnt

  11. What you idiots don’t get is 50-75 years ago, you hop a train, screw up and end up dead or missing a few limbs, well, you took a gamblers chance and lost, that’s unfortunate. Now, they and there white bread momma sue the railroad for 20 million, and WIN.

  12. Y'all we're on the deck in SLC on a double shot gun grainer. What the fuck? Afraid to call "no homo" and be too close??

  13. hobo convention that's not worth the trouble of traveling if you ask me, ordinary people fucked it up and turned the event into babyshower

  14. It's annoying how this guy talks like like he's a genuine hobo, when he's just some kid with a comfortable life playing out a fantasy for a couple of days.

  15. If it has to be explained to you then you would not understand. Too many people buy into the American dream. They do not understand the American dream is debt. These type of people don't care that much about money and stuff and that is truly freedom. You can live your life whatever makes you happy I did many years on the road with the Grateful Dead. I had a great time I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. I also went on to open up pretty much a half million dollar shop for 26 years. So I've done both and right now I'm sick and I have COPD but I have so many buildings and stuff and I can't even lift it. If you keep your circle small and you don't have family. Something like that happens to you now instantly all that stuff is worthless.
    It's not the life for everybody, some people choose to be as free as they can be!

  16. “The most undisturbed stretch of natural beauty we had ever seen”, he says, riding a massive freight train along a rail track slammed down right thru the middle of it.

  17. Hi i'm la lovely loco the Hobo since we're using hobo names around here I might as well keep it formal

  18. Bum is a person that won’t work and begs for money. A tramp is a person that works and still begs for money. A hobo won’t ask for money and instead works cash paid day jobs or whatever.

  19. Sorry but a group of guys who have never experienced having to stay hidden from authorities, or just regular ppl who will report you just for looking like a homeless person in the wrong place. pretending to do something that nobody does anymore because of the shitty super surveillance police state we all live in. Just isn't the way to pay tribute to whatever they were trying to. They're carrying thousands of dollars of crap in probably 6 or $700 backpacks lucky they didn't get robbed and beat then left in a ditch. I've been homeless and train stations are super guarded by police and the trains own police anywhere I've been ive always avoided them like the plague. Ppl are just homeless now and they don't move around because it's not easy the second your out on an open road in a rural are your going to get stopped and harassed probably detained if you don't have ID which if your homeless you won't. If you want to know how seriously unfree we really are try being homeless and just moving around the country almost garaunteed you'll spend more than 1 night in a jail

  20. That's awsome and would be fun…to bad a lot of rail road workers n hobos raped a lot of youth… Maybe few gave many a bad name idk

  21. The Hobo life has been romanticized so much…. Yet even in this video, they explain that it started with men hopping trains to try to find work. In other words, people so poor and desperate, they had no home, no jobs and no hope. The only choice they had was to risk their lives hopping trains to travel to different towns, states or even regions to try to find enough work to SURVIVE!

  22. "this was pre iphone, now you can totally just gps the location" yeah, cause the average hobo totally has an iphone and internet..

  23. I wish you had given the camera to real Hobos.You are playing at it. Actual hobos would have got the shit kicked out of them by the Bull.You received politeness;they would have got a boot and a fist…..guaranteed.( My experience as a roadtrekker – to you: a leather tramp) is witness to this.

  24. My friends and I have rode the rails around America. It's been a few years since then but I can tell you that there are still people that live like this. The best part about it was seeing all the untouched wilderness. For instance, outside of San Bernardino in the middle of nowhere, there was a pack of wild dogs that had probably all once been domesticated but ran away and found each other. There was even a spray painted sign that said "beware dogs!" They actually saw or smelled my friend and I and chased us on the train for a little bit but the train was moving too fast.

  25. My aunt Bonnie was a hobo when she was younger. She had amazing stories. She bandaged her boobs and cut her hair short so nobody would know she was a girl.

  26. How pretentious to come into SOMEONE else's community and scrutinize their event for not being authentic to YOUR idea of hobo life. These people live in a small community and aren't real hobos, and of course REAL hobos wouldn't be at the event, they're out riding and trying to survive. Come on Vice…

  27. Wanna see a cooler document about hobos? Go back about 10+ years to when Vice was awesome, and watch "Thumbs Up" with David Choe.

  28. Hahahaha hahahaha hahahaha Vice reporters as train hobos…did you get raped, robbed, and beaten? Did you murder anybody? You’re not train hobo, but maybe get a dose of one, with your risky voyeurism. Dumbasses…..🐿, wait, look, squirrel ❣️

  29. Pretty cool story, here in ATL we call them train kidz. When I used to wrk in a restaurant at closing I would drop of food. They all had different stories of why they chose to travel this way, I used to assume the worst for them but most truly changed my opinion. Freedom was the one word They used 95% of the time.

  30. In the whole “doc” we never even got an explanation of what the word “hobo” means or where it comes from.

  31. Hobos are people too different journey for everyone..👉🏼🧠✔️✔️✔️✔️✔️do what brings u joy…🎣

  32. currently traveling down and across america, hitchhiking and backpacking. documenting my trip in 5 parts. episode 1 and 2 are already up. ya'll should check it out if youre into this kinda stuff.

  33. I think I have actually met that guy called "wrong way" before? I am myself a very nomadic person, but don't do the train hopping, I walk! The longest I was ever in one place was 4 yrs, and moved on average around 12-15 times a year, but those trains must stay on tracks, and that is way too limited for me!

  34. One evening as the sun went down
    And the jungle fire was burning,
    Down the track came a hobo hiking,
    And he said, "Boys, I'm not turning
    I'm headed for a land that's far away
    Besides the crystal fountains
    So come with me, we'll go and see
    The Big Rock Candy Mountains

    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
    There's a land that's fair and bright,
    Where the handouts grow on bushes
    And you sleep out every night
    Where the boxcars all are empty
    And the sun shines every day
    On the birds and the bees
    And the cigarette trees
    The lemonade springs
    Where the bluebird sings
    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
    All the cops have wooden legs
    And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
    And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
    The farmers' trees are full of fruit
    And the barns are full of hay
    Oh I'm bound to go
    Where there ain't no snow
    Where the rain don't fall
    The wind don't blow
    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
    You never change your socks
    And the little streams of alcohol
    Come trickling down the rocks
    The brakemen have to tip their hats
    And the railroad bulls are blind
    There's a lake of stew
    And of whiskey, too
    You can paddle all around 'em
    In a big canoe
    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
    The jails are made of tin
    And you can walk right out again,
    As soon as you are in
    There ain't no short-handled shovels,
    No axes, saws or picks,
    I'ma goin' to stay
    Where you sleep all day,
    Where they hung the jerk
    That invented work
    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

    I'll see you all this coming Fall
    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains"

  35. Thats funny. I once caugbt a train from central berkeley by university ave to the old elmwood theatre in emeryville. I could have walked but the train was running slow, and dropped me off only a block from the theater (used to be by emeryville public market, off 60th st). The start of this video in oakland is at the corner of wood st amd 34th st, about a half mile away… I actually used to pass through the start of the video on a bike, since oakland has a beach but you have to cross the tracks and go through the port of oakland which is pure indistrial area with no homes except one very very very out of place homeless shelter. If you know tha Town then you know exactly what Im talking about

  36. Onky about 10 minute walk from the start if this video is a sick ass cliff you can jump off into the bay at the port of oaklnad. Down there off grand ave a couole blocks south on maritime and one block right. Bring some swimming shortsm they could have at least started the movie with jumoing off the cliff and climbing up the metal dock. I think the cliff is on buchannon

  37. Why does every generation want to recreate the past? It was a point in history that won’t ever be replicated. Get over it u fucking cuck millennials 👊

  38. If you have a backpack on your back, you simply look like a traveler. No need to run. Just say you are traveling.

  39. Jesus this journalism piece is wayyy off. Train hopping is alive and well. The guys that keep getting caught and spotted dont know wtf they doing and arent about that life at all. This episode doesnt do the traveler community any justice. Some straight up oogle shit

  40. back in highschool id catch the train to get to and from school alot of the times or just go to a few lakes or rivers

  41. Ahhh, the people that give NOTHING to society. It’s good to know that most people aren’t looking for a “free ride” because there wouldn’t be any trains if we all acted this way…

  42. Really, I think about all the people that died to make the rail way; it wasn’t for freeloaders. Any one of them could have just gotten a job working for the RR, but they chose to just abuse the system.

  43. People hating on these people because they are "rich", but tell me would you do all this just to try to understand someone else? Stop being disgusting people.

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