Warm weather meant hoboes would soon be riding the rails into eastern and northern Maine a century ago. Seventy some odd trains passed through Bangor each day giving these “knights of the road” plenty of boxcars to choose from.
Some were looking for jobs in the woods and potato fields up north. Others were just looking for adventure or an easy life. If they weren’t careful, they would be picked up by railroad guards or local police who might rough them up and charge them with evading the fare or vagrancy.
Jumping freight trains could be dangerous. There were stories of men losing legs or being pulled under the train and killed. Bodies were occasionally found near the tracks. Sometimes they were railroad employees who got careless or deaf people or youngsters who were not paying attention. Some corpses went unidentified, their deaths generating a few brief paragraphs in the newspaper, leaving the reader to speculate what horrors occurred.
Hobo camps sprouted wherever the tracks ran close to a stream or pond and a fellow could build a fire without raising a ruckus. Bangor’s two daily newspapers usually carried a few stories about police raids on popular camps located along the river above Eastern Maine General Hospital in Bangor or out in Hermon, where the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad had its headquarters.
Not all the hoboes were for real, however, like those described by Jack London in his famous essay on his brief life riding the rails. The Bangor Daily News revealed this truth one May morning a century ago in a large front page headline that must have raised eyebrows in more than a few respectable, middle class households.
POLICE NABBED 44 STUDENTS: University of Maine and Bowdoin Men Taken from Box Car and Locked Up, the headline said May 15, 1916.
The story was so sensational it edged out much of the war news. The lead said: “Forty-four college men — eight of Bowdoin, the others of the University of Maine — were taken from a box car near Waterville station at 1 o’clock Saturday morning and locked up on the charge of evading fare.”
The students had left Bangor at 8 p.m. the night before on their way to attend an intercollegiate track meet in Brunswick. That was back in the days when track generated almost as much enthusiasm as football and certainly more than hockey. An estimated 150 to 200 students had sneaked onto the train, but alert train officials were ready for them.
“Several had been put off at Pittsfield, and others scenting trouble as the train slowed up in the Waterville yards, disappeared amid the shadows,” the newspaper story said. Then three policemen and an official from the Maine Central Railroad went to one of the lumber cars and demanded that the occupants come out.
Much had been written about the romance of riding the rails. The boys had undoubtedly read some of this material. They were dressed for the part — “like real tramps in their heavy sweaters, mackinaws, high boots and jockey caps,” the newspaper story noted.
A few of them perhaps couldn’t afford the train trip to Brunswick, the reporter speculated, but the majority had jumped the freight just for “the devilment of the thing.”
Probably a number of them owned or had access to automobiles, but this was back in the days when, even if you had an auto, a trip from Orono to Brunswick was a long, unpredictable ordeal because of the bad roads and the unreliability of rubber tires and gasoline engines at the time.
The boys’ hang dog expressions were left to the reader’s imagination as they emerged from the boxcar in single file and were taken to the police station in “several big auto loads,” where they spent the rest of the wee hours.
College students were a privileged lot back in those days (not that they aren’t today as well — there’s just a lot more of them). In comparison to a real hobo, who could have expected a month or so in a jail cell on lean rations with perhaps a trip to the rock pile each day, these boys were pampered.
This was back in the days of “in loco parentis” — college officials were considered the unofficial parents of the students. Indeed, Colby and University of Maine officials and alumni were contacted shortly after daylight, $100 or so was raised and the students were released on payment of a sum equivalent to their fares from Bangor to Waterville and the cost of their arrests. None of them ever saw the inside of the courtroom “and therefore no court records stand against any of them.” Whether they spent some time in jail cells awaiting the dawn goes unmentioned.
Most of them were able to produce enough money to continue on to Brunswick and then to make the return trip to Orono — “the ordinary way.” Not one even had his name published in the Bangor newspapers. (Interestingly, one student was blind and the railroad apparently treated him to the whole trip.)
Just to update this story a bit — 50 years later boys didn’t ride freight cars, at least nobody I knew. We didn’t even know where the railroad tracks were located. We stood on the side of the highway and stuck out our thumbs. A few of us had enough money to afford broken-down cars, but students on financial aid weren’t allowed to keep cars on campus. In this manner, I traveled between Maine and Boston many times, and once or twice as far as my hometown in New York.
Today, college campuses have become speedways, paved with vast parking lots patrolled by traffic cops. Amazingly, given the cost of a college degree, many, if not most, students seem to have their own automobiles or trucks these days. In this rush to affluence, the romance of the rails and travel by thumb have been lost.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era, is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org