On our layout in Fort Bragg there is a figure of a guy with his dog laying down beside the tracks. It is a mini-diorama that is frequently photographed by visitors. There is no sign on the little scene to say that it is meant to depict a frequent character in the era we model – the hobo. From conversations I have had with visitors it is clear that they have little idea of what a hobo was. Wiki says, “A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagrant, especially one who is impoverished. The term originated in the Western—probably Northwestern—United States around 1890. Unlike a “tramp”, who works only when forced to, and a “bum”, who does not work at all, a “hobo” is a travelling worker.”
More from Wiki, “It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene. With the end of the American Civil War in the 1860s, many discharged veterans returning home began hopping freight trains. Others looking for work on the American frontier followed the railways west aboard freight trains in the late 19th century. The number of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s. With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to travel for free by freight train and try their luck elsewhere.
Life as a hobo was dangerous. In addition to the problems of being itinerant, poor, and far from home and support, plus the hostility of many train crews, they faced the railroads’ security staff, nicknamed “bulls”, who had a reputation of violence against trespassers. “
The hobos had their own sign language:
To cope with the uncertainties of hobo life, hobos developed a system of symbols, or a visual code. Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to others in “the brotherhood”. A symbol would indicate “turn right here”, “beware of hostile railroad police”, “dangerous dog”, “food available here”, and so on. Some commonly used signs:
- A cross signifies “angel food”, that is, food served to the hobos after a sermon.
- A triangle with hands signifies that the homeowner has a gun.
- A horizontal zigzag signifies a barking dog.
- A square missing its top line signifies it is safe to camp in that location.
- A top hat and a triangle signify wealth.
- A spearhead signifies a warning to defend oneself.
- A circle with two parallel arrows means get out fast, as hobos are not welcome in the area.
- Two interlocked circles, representing handcuffs, warn that hobos are hauled off to jail.
- A caduceus symbol signifies the house has a doctor living in it.
- A cross with a smiley face in one of the corners means the doctor at this office will treat hobos free of charge.
- A cat signifies a kind lady lives here.
- A wavy line (signifying water) above an X means fresh water and a campsite.
- Three diagonal lines mean it is not a safe place.
- A square with a slanted roof (signifying a house) with an X through it means that the house has already been “burned” or “tricked” by another hobo and is not a trusting house.
- Two shovels signify that work was available.
The hobo spawned songs about his life. One popular on is called Hobo’s Laments. This one, by John Prine, tells of the hardships and the vid has a lot of photos that tell of the hobo’s life”