Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Riding the rails ::with Hood River Blackie
this is from the winter of 1980)Hobo Camps and JunglesFOR over a hundred years the hobo has loved,laughed and died in track-side camps called jungles.These Range in size from a small rock-enclosed fire place under a lone tree,to huge jungles like the one at Mattoon,Illinois where the big four railroad running west crossed the Illinois Central which ran north and south. Or the big jungles on the shores of Lake Champlain at Burlington,Vermont where the lumberjacks used to come in each spring and jungle up along the Rutland railroad while waiting for jobs in the woods.There were many kinds of jungles. Some were permanent and well known,some only temporary during the harvest,and some a little of both.One of the big permanent jungles, perhaps the the best known, was the mile-long jungle on the Americian River at Sacramento, California. In this big jungle one could see all sorts of shacks,and all sorts of cooking methods from a couple of forked sticks with a third stick stretched between them to hang a pot on,to washtubs with a hole cut out of the side for draft and even in some instances an old wood stove dragged in from a nearby dump.There were lonley little jungles in the lonley places frequented by few hoboes,mostly old timers. Such a jungle is the one located a couple hundreds yards east of the old depot at Avery,Idaho along the main line Milwaukee railroad. The St.Joe River which ran beside it furnished not only water but darn good fishing.Probably the most unusual jungle and only one of its kind in Americia was the jungle on Mrs. Childs` estate in Santa Barbara,California.Here the wealthy socialite allowed old-time hoboes to build cabins and shacks under the trees on her property. She had electricity and water piped out to the old cabins for the convenience of the hoboes who stayed there.This jungle was strictly for old-time hoboes ; winos,thieves and other undesirable characters were not allowed to stay there.Every Christmas she used to send her butler out to the camp with a handful of $5.00 bills,each hobo there got $5.00 as a Christmas gift. The butler,obviously caring very little for hoboes and their life styles,hated the job.I don`t really know what prompted her to do so much for them but legend has it that that one time a hobo saved her small child from drowning.I don`t know if this is true or not but I`ve heard the same story by many of the old-timers.A few years ago Mrs.Childs died but she made a provision in her will for the care and upkeep of the old jungle on her place.Recently I learned that the will was broken up and the jungle is no more.There have been quite a few people around the country seemingly in sympathy with the hobo.A rancher near Coachella,California for many years allowed hoboes to camp in a grove of tamarisk trees on his property.A rancher near Winters,California had a couple of old shacks and a jungle on the back of his property where any wanderer was welcome to stay as long as he wanted to .Here, too, water and electricity had been run out to the jungle.This rancher, Henry Smith,has long been known as the hobo`s friend and from my own experience is one of the finest human beings I`ve ever met. He even went so far as to buy hundred pound sacks of beans and potatoes,some coffee,grease, and flour,then take it to the jungle and tell the boys to help themselves. He is also well knownhis unusual practice of climbing in his private plane,taking off from a dirt strip behind his house and flying perhaps as far as two hundred miles to pick up some old hobo friend and fly him back to the ranch.If he knew you all it took was a phone call.THERE was another kind of jungle(the ones I call secret jungles) which even the police didn`t seem to have heard about.The one at Mojave,California was located in a sort of hole half a mile from the Southern Pacific tracks.This jungle, well known to the old-timers had a small seep spring of good water and a few small bushes for shade, as no hobo likes a baldheaded jungle(meaning a jungle with no shade).There is ,or was ,another such jungle twenty miles east of Yuma,Arizona near what the hoboes call the Dome Valley siding on the Southern Pacific.Here also was a small spring,an old car hood suspended from a tree by wires for a table, a washtub so as to form a stove, a couple of old army cots and buckets seats.Another kind of jungle is what I would calla harvest jungle where for most of the year therewere hardly any hoboes or perhaps none at all but at harvest time they were there in droves.Such a jungle was located along the Milwaukee main line in Mitchell,South Dakota. Many years ago before combines came into general use,during the grain harvest there might be as amny as a thousand hoboes jungled up along the tracks waiting for the work to start.Of course,not all were real hoboes. Some were farm boys from distant towns out to make a few dollars. Some might be out-of-work factory hands,cowboys,miners,and just all sorts of of people who needed to make a few dollars.There would also be a few jack rollers (robbers), and some Eastern street bums who came there to bum the working men.Chicken Red once told me that these jack rollers would sometimes take a job in the harvest and then keep a sharp eye on his fellow workers to see who was saving his money.When he had chosen someone he felt had a big roll, he would either try to buddy up to the man so as to leave with him when the harvest was over or follow him when he left, or in some way get him alone,knock him in the head and take his money.Red told me that one year when he left the grain harvest at Mitchell a jack roller had followed him a thousand miles down the rails only to lose him in the big Hillard yards at Spokane.Bull Frog Blackie told me that a jack roller had cornered him more or less under a bridge at Miles City,Montana and threatened him with a small pen knife,Blackie whipped out his straight razor and gave the man a severe cut on his knife hand.That old razor now more than a hundred years old ,lies here on my table as I write this.Contrary to popular belief,other people besides the hobo used the jungles.I`ve seen more than one old cowboy laid back with his head on his saddle -- no horse, just a saddle. I`ve seen many a bedroll with the barrell of a battered winchester sticking out of it .Many a runaway kid came to the jungles and shared our stew and coffee. Nearly all of them I`m sure,after thinking things over returned home or in some cases were sent home by the local police.ONE THING that a lot of peoplemay not know is that there are hoboes buried in or near these jungles.Years ago Tex Medders showed me a patch of trees at Omaha,Nebraska that he said was a hobo graveyard. He didn`t know how many were buried there but he said he knew of three,for sure.All had died of natural causes and had been buried by their pals.Many years ago I personally saw Baby Buggy John laid to rest under a big cottonwood treein the jungle.He had died in his sleep no more than ten feet from me.I had wanted to call the police or undertaker or somebody,but was quickly vetoed by the older men who rustled up a shovel from somewhere and planted him.The only words said over the grave were by old Tex Medders who had known him sixty years.As we left the spot with our gear on our backs Tex tipped his old battered stetson and said simply"So Long John".Now I have a riual that I go through each springwhich might seem foolish to some people but not to me since the old hoboes were very good to me when I was a kid with no place to go.I have told you about this before.I go to a five and 10 ten cent store and buy a bunch of plastic flowers. I visit the graves of as many of my old hobo friendsI can find and leave a plastic flower and a card that says "Hood River Blackie never forgets". Theres Cinnamon Bill and Crooked Nose Lloyd at Yuma;Black Swede and Siwash Johnson at Mina,Nevada;Tex Medders, The Panama Kid, and Mushfake Steele near Marysville,California;;Amboy Fats,Old Joe Bennett BugHouse McCan at Evertt Washington and many more about fifty in all.The grave of Baby Buggy John however has in recent years presented a problem. some rancher has built a fine brick home on the spot where our jungle used to be . His back yard is a beautiful lawn and near the back edge of it under the big cottonwood tree he has constructed a very nice brick bar-b-que.Under this brick bar-b-que lies Baby Buggy John.If that rancher should read these lines he will now understand why sometimes in the spring he finds a plastic flower with a card attached to it that says simply"Hood River Blackie never forgets",and since I have confessed to the deed I hope this rancher truly understands.The hobo jungles are about gone now, as are the hoboes who lived in the them.Many places can no longer be identified as ever having been a jungle.Some still contain blackened old cans or the remains of a small fireplaces.There are a couple, though,that look much as they did fifty years ago,with perhaps an old skillet or pot hanging from a tree and a little stacked up for the next user.Such a jungle is at Essex, Montana along the Great Northern track. Another is at Helper,Utah along the Denver and Rio Grande Western. these two are kept clean simply because a couple of old-time hoboes still spend some time there each summer.Not long ago on Television I saw An archeologist on the site of an anccient Indian village digiing in a trash heap he called a midden.He was uncovering fishhooks made of bone,obsidian arrowheads, and other little odds and ends which he said would tell him a lot about this vanished race.It made me wonder if perhaps a thousand years in the future,should the human race survive that long,another archeologist might dig up a hobo jungle.I wonder what he`d make of the wine bottle capsand sardine cans.