I Was a Teen Hobo: Tales from the Rails

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman June 15, 2014 18:29
Photo by Rich Miller

Algon Anderson at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Jamestown, CA

By Chris Bateman

Did your 401K take a hit with the recession of 2008? Was your pay frozen? Your health benefits cut? Did you put off buying a new car and go out to dinner less?

Spend an hour with 94-year-old Algon Anderson of Jamestown, and you’ll stop feeling sorry for yourself.

In 1933, Anderson left his Quitman, Louisiana, home at age 13, hopping freight trains in search of back-breaking, ill-paying jobs that would help his family through the Great Depression. And he did so for six years without complaint or regret.

Anderson covered more than 10,000 miles in rattling boxcars, going from one 25-cent-an-hour, 16-hour-a-day job to another. The teenager slept in fields and rail yards in Mississippi, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Although often hungry, he sent most of the meager wages he earned back to his parents and six siblings in Quitman.

A “wide spot in the road” with maybe 200 people, Anderson’s hometown was left in economic ruin when its lumber mill shut down and put nearly 50 men, including his father, out of work early in the Depression.

“We moved onto a farm as sharecroppers,” he recalls. “My dad did it to support my mother and their seven kids.”

By the time young Algon (pronounced AL-jen, short for Algernon) was eight, he spent almost every waking moment outside his grade-school classes plowing fields behind a mule.

“You were lucky if you made $100 a year farming cotton and corn,” he remembers. “No family could have gotten by without a cow and chickens. Cornbread and milk were all we’d get for dinner, and we were happy to have it.”

Landlords advanced sharecropping tenants enough money to live on. After the harvest, farmers would be paid a percentage of crop revenues — which would theoretically cover the loan and include some profit.

“But with our landlord, there was never any profit,” says Anderson.

Algon in 1945Riding the rails

Two years later young Algon — known as Andy or Al to friends — quit school and worked full time for his family, for relatives and for neighbors. At 13, along with tens of thousands of American men left jobless and penniless by the Depression, he began riding the rails in search of more work.

“I didn’t know a thing about it, so I left with a guy who did,” he says. “When a train stopped in Quitman, we saw an open boxcar and hopped in.”

Sure enough, a few miles down the line, Anderson and his friend hopped out and got jobs picking cotton. And so went his life for the better part of a decade: Hop a freight, work a job and repeat, season after season, year after year. But leaving home at age 13?

“My parents never said a thing when I left,” Anderson says. “They knew I was looking for work, and I knew they needed the money.”

Scores of jobs, thousands of miles and nearly six years later, Anderson married Marcella, a coworker he met in a prune-drying plant in Healdsburg, California. He found work at a lumber mill there and bought a 1929 Model A for $50 ($12 down and $6 a month). Things were looking up.

When World War II began, he signed on with the Mare Island Shipyard near Vallejo, earning the then-extravagant wage of $1.20 an hour.

Photo by Phil SchermeisterPickering and beyond

After the war, worried that work at the shipyard would end, he followed a friend’s advice and took an 87-cent-an-hour job with Pickering Lumber Co. In the nearly two decades that followed, Algon and Marcella raised three daughters – all of whom now live in Tuolumne County.

Working overtime and foregoing coffee breaks to learn new skills, he also won a series of promotions at Pickering. In the early 1960s, he was running the company’s planing mill and, he grins, “supervising college graduates.”

By 1965, Anderson had divorced, left Pickering for a lumber mill job in Cloverdale, Humboldt County, and remarried. Nineteen years later, he concluded a working career that spanned nearly six decades.

Anderson lost his second wife, Helen, to heart disease in 2012 and moved to Jamestown to be with daughters Darlene, Marlene and Earlene.

Although it’s been more than 70 years since Algon Anderson hopped freight trains, his memories are vivid. A decade ago he wrote a brief memoir of his life on the rails. This year he shared a few more tales from the 1930s with Friends and Neighbors.

His sparse prose captures that bare-bones era, as Anderson parts with words just as carefully as he spent dimes and quarters many years ago.

On life in Quitman:

When I was 9, I went with my father to a store to buy groceries. The store man had a boy that always drank a soda and ate a candy bar. I wanted one so bad I almost cried. I never asked my father because I didn’t think he had enough money.

My dad only whipped me once. My brother and I worked all day on the farm and he paid my brother a few cents more. I got angry and threw the coins. He whipped me and made me get on my hands and knees to pick up every cent. I learned the value of a dollar, but it would be years before I would earn as much as a dollar a day.

On work:

When I was 11, my parents went to visit my cousins, who let me work for them for three months and bought me a pair of shoes. When I was 12, one of my uncles said he would buy my school clothes if I worked for him three months, but he didn’t buy me anything. That really hurt.

Years later, when I was riding the rails, I got off a freight with some other guys in Marysville. We were hungry, so we went all over town asking for food. No one gave us any, so we went to Yuba City and found a bakery. I asked if I could do something for food. They said I could wash their truck and gave us a bag of cookies. We stayed under a bridge until we could find another job.

Once I went home to Quitman and got a job with a ditch-digging crew in a town nearby. The boss gave me a broom handle and told me to walk along the ditch and hit any guy who was not digging. Well, all these guys were black, and they were getting pretty nervous as I walked by. I told them I wasn’t going to hit anyone, and after a while I threw down the broom handle, grabbed a shovel, jumped into the ditch and started to dig with them.

Helping a newcomer hop a freight train in Bakersfield, April 1940

Helping a newcomer hop a freight train in Bakersfield, April 1940

On riding the rails:

Getting on was easy when the train was stopped, but when it was moving, it could be tricky. Once, when I was about 15, I was running to catch a moving freight out of Shreveport. I threw my clothes, wrapped in a burlap sack, to a guy in a boxcar who said he’d keep them for me. Then I jumped for the car, but I couldn’t hang on and it threw me off into a ditch. So I got back up and saw the train had slowed because it was climbing a hill. I ran after it, caught it and jumped into that boxcar. I ended up getting my clothes back.

Unlike passenger trains, freights don’t stop on schedule, which can lead to some problems. Once I was riding back home, and the freight went right by Quitman way too fast for me to jump off. I rode about 10 more miles, and it stopped near where some of my cousins lived. It was the middle of the night, and I jumped off, then walked to their house, went into their bedroom and fell asleep. They were pretty surprised in the morning.

One time I was on a freight train to Arizona, and it was loaded with people. When we got to Dallas, a train bull with a .45 got us all off, lined us up, and asked us where we were going and what we did. He had a pair of heavy gloves, and when one of us answered, he’d hit him on the head. Then he came to the last three of us. The first said he was a boxer, and the bull didn’t hit him. The next said he was a wrestler, and he didn’t hit him either. Then he asked me, and I said, “I’m with them.” He left me alone, too, and told us we could catch the next train.

The locomotives were all steam, of course, and when you were in an open car near the front of the train, you couldn’t escape the smoke. When you got off, you were black as night, covered with soot. You’d have to jump in a river to clean yourself up. Back then, rivers and lakes were our bathtubs.

Boxcars weren’t heated, and one time in Texas a yard worker in Greenville said a hobo had frozen to death on a train the night before. Well, I didn’t want to freeze, so I went to the town jail and asked for a cell. The jailer said no, that I had done nothing wrong. Then he gave me 50 cents. I used one quarter to rent a room and the other to buy a hamburger. I was just fine.

One time, I rode a freight to Sacramento, then hitchhiked to Healdsburg, where Marcella lived. Later we got married, but on my wedding day I saw a freight train ready to leave town. I thought about catching it, riding it maybe just to Santa Rosa. But I didn’t, ’cause I knew that once I started to ride, I might just keep on going.

Photo by Phil SchermeisterGrowing up quickly

During those years, Anderson returned to Quitman a few times each year, but he never again lived with his parents permanently. Instead, he grew up quickly and learned to find work and to work hard no matter how tough or low-paying the job might be.

“I would do anything. I picked fruit and cotton, washed dishes, washed cars, dug ditches, peeled onions,” he says. “In the Depression, you took nothing for granted, not even your next meal. You always took work when you could get it.”

That ethic wasn’t all Anderson took from the Great Depression. “Growing up in the Depression made me appreciate what I had and made me realize that what happened to me can happen to anyone.”

Anderson worked regularly at the food bank in Cloverdale and has pitched in at the Jamestown food bank since moving back to Tuolumne County.

Frugality and generosity are virtues Anderson has passed on to his three daughters.

“Now that I’m retired, I’m watching my nickels and dimes and remembering how Dad got by in the 1930s,” says Darlene, who lives with her father in Jamestown. “And my sisters and I all volunteer and try to help people. Dad has been a great inspiration.”

“I can’t help but want to help,” her father says. “Whenever I see a poor person, I see myself all those years ago and I have compassion.”


Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman June 15, 2014 18:29
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1 Comment

  1. Gail August 18, 20:01

    This is an awesome story. I am so glad that I ran across it while researching my own family history. By some chance did Mr. Anderson happen to mention if his parents names were William Cleve and Lena Anderson? If so, then we are connected. I am the granddaughter of his cousin Lester Anderson.

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