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Errol Lincoln Uys

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Riding the Rails
by Errol Lincoln Uys   

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Publisher:  Routledge ISBN-10:  0415945755


Copyright:  April 2003

Barnes &
Riding the Rails

Unforgettable stories from the 250,000 boxcar boys and girls of the Great Depression. An American epic that leaves you breathless with admiration for these true heroes of the 1930s

The Boxcar Boys and Girls


What kid hasn’t fantasized about  running away from home and hitting the road? If your Dad was a kid in the 1930s, chances are that’s what he would have done looking for work and adventure.


Between 1929 and 1941, an estimated 4,000,000 Americans desperate for food and lodging roamed the land. Of this number, 250,000 were teenagers who rode the rails and grew up fast in speeding boxcars, living in hobo jungles, begging on the streets and running from the police and club-wielding railroad guards.


The restless youth of 3,000 boxcar boys and girls, many who went from “middle-class gentility to scrabble-ass poor” overnight, is recaptured in Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression by Errol Lincoln Uys. With skill and sensitivity, Uys weaves together these rich reminiscences in the spirit of Studs Terkel. His book dispels the myths of a hobo existence and reveals the story of a daring generation of American teenagers who survived some of the hardest times in our nation’s history.


Riding the Rails grew out of the award-winning documentary of the same name made by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell, who solicited 3,000 letters from former freight trainhoppers when they made the film. The letters as well as 500 follow-up questionnaires and 40 hours of filmed interview are the basis of the book.


The result is a memorable and moving story in which we see the decade of the Great Depression entirely through the eyes of young men and women growing up on a landscape of ruin. We ride the rails with them, setting out from homes shattered by unemployment and poverty and hitting the road. We learn of their struggle to survive on the streets of America and know their bitter disappointments, their sense of loss of childhood, their frustrations at the lack of opportunity. “When I think of all this traveling across the land, searching for the things we had lost, there is a place inside my chest that still hurts,” recalls one rider.


When they left the rails and got a hold on their lives, they never let go. Many tell of keeping the jobs they found for 30 or 40 years. And the girls they met, too: many write joyously of their enduring devotion to the sweethearts they married when they settled down. Their stories told in their own words resonate with the pluck and courage they showed in going to seek a better life. – They are the forgotten heroes of our century.


"Dad worked ten hours a day for six days a week before the Depression and things were fine. I remember the morning it happened. I was in the basement fooling around with my crystal set before school when Dad came home. I lost my job. I’m out of work,” he told mother. It was the first time I saw my father cry.

Dad had to stand in unemployment lines. He’d get a job for a day or two and earn a buck or so. You could see his suffering. Dad wasn’t a banker, he wasn’t a machinist, he was a common laborer like hundreds of thousands of others. He put pieces of metal in a machine that went clunk. That’s what my Dad did but he had his pride. -- Take away a man’s pride and he’s skin and bones. He is nothing.

Things went downhill. You lived off your relatives. You went to eat at grandmas and here and there until you hit rock bottom and went on relief.
Mother had to leave the house and find work. She did cleaning jobs and was a pastry cook in a restaurant.
Never once were my father or mother mean to me. I saw their struggle was slowly squeezing the life out of them. They were going nowhere. It tore the living hell out of you.

Those days you didn’t get a check in the mail. You took a little red wagon and dragged it around and waited in line. The relief people threw in food as if they were feeding dogs. It was the most humiliating experience in the world for a 14-year-old kid.

You couldn’t do things in school that other kids did. You had to buy milk but couldn’t afford it. You wanted to belong to the Boy Scouts but didn’t have 50 cents to join.

Everything closed in on me. One day I decked the principal and ran out of school. I sat down and said to myself, “You’re no damn good to your family or anybody.” I was just another mouth to feed at home. I’d lighten my parents’ burden if I took off.

The quickest and easiest way to get out was to jump a train and go somewhere. --We thought it was the magic carpet – the click of the rails – romance.

Professional Reviews

The Boston Globe
'Riding the Rails' is a riveting document of hope and hardship during one of this nation's bleakest eras. For all that has been written about the Depression, the travails of those under the age of 18 have been sorely underrepresented. Gripping and well-researched, this book by Errol Lincoln Uys is a companion piece to the award-winning 1997 documentary of the same name. With more than 500 interviews and stunning archival photographs Uys so thoroughly re-creates the wretched conditions the boxcar boys and girls endured that the reader can all but hear the cadence of the trains on the tracks and the lonesome wail at every whistle-stop.

Sonny Delaney, Amazon History Editor
Errol Lincoln Uys (pronounced "Ace") has collected thousands of letters written by boxcar boys and girls about their experiences, and peppers his chapters on the various aspects of hobo life with lengthy quotations, allowing the riders to speak for themselves. Whether you're a "gaycat" (novice rider) or a "dingbat" (seasoned hobo), Riding the Rails is entertaining and inspiring, recapturing a time when the country was "dying by inches." --Sunny Delaney

Library Journal
An elegantly presented and quietly moving collection of first-hand reminiscences capturing a unique moment in American history. Enthusiastically recommended for all public libraries.

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