Reliving the Olden Days When Johnson City Had Three “Hobo Jungles”
Songsters Travis Hale and E.J. Derry recorded, “The Dying Hobo,” on Victor Records in 1927 with these opening doleful words: “Behind a western water tank, one dark and dreary day; Within an open boxcar, a dying hobo lay; His partner stood beside him, with sad and lowered head; Listening to the last words, the dying hobo said.”
Ken Harrison, a true hobo aficionado, shared with me an interesting research paper that he once penned for the Mountain Home Views. According to Ken, between 1935 and 1942, hobos regularly hopped rides on passenger trains in and out of Johnson City, such journeys being without the luxury of a comfortable seat or coach. During the heyday of these sojourners, they were often confused with other nomadic drifters referred to as tramps and bums.
While there was obviously overlap between the three terms, hobos typically traveled from city-to-city seeking employment. That is not to infer that they did not accept a handout. Likewise, tramps traveled from place-to-place but, for the most part, were not seeking a job. In contrast, bums tended to remain in one location for long periods of time while begging for subsistence.
Historians generally agree that the word “hobo” comes from the phrase “hoe boy,” defined as one who hoed crops for often-meager compensation. The name was coined in the early 1800's. Some hobo notables from our nation’s past include Jack Dempsey (boxer), Clark Gable (actor), Woody Guthrie (folk singer), Jack London (author), Eugene O'Neil (playwright), Jimmie Rodgers (“Father of Country Music”), Mark Twain (author, humorist), Carl Sandburg (author) and Boxcar Willie (country music singer who popularized the hobo in song).
Harrison added: “Hobos of that day were men out of work who drifted from coast to coast, getting by as best they could. I never saw or heard of a woman or child hobo until later years.” As a train made its approach to either the Clinchfield or Southern railroad depot in Johnson City,these migratory workers abruptly disembarked and hastily sought the city’s “Hobo Jungle,” an idiom denoting a small population of fellow wanderers. Johnson City’s main vagabond village was located along the railroad tracks at E. Millard and Oak streets, about one block east of the old Johnson City Power Board building (former trolley car station). Today, I-26 crosses directly over the former “jungle.”
Ken’s father, the late Jack Harrison, recalled two additional “Hobo Jungles” – the rail yard near the intersection of Watauga and Walnut streets (adjacent to Model Mill, later renamed General Mills) and along the tracks at Mountain Home’s back gate. Harrison made a sketch of the area that he grew up knowing as “Hobo Jungle.” It shows the old DeBord Mill and a low railroad trestle that is still standing. Although the area along Brush Creek appears almost barren today, it was once densely overgrown with vegetation that easily concealed hobos from the intrusive eyes of the inquisitive public.
Hobos rarely disclosed their true identities; instead, they were known by such nicknames as Southeast Slim, Lonesome Joe, Santa Fe Sam or Ruble Red. Most preferred to live a life of anonymity during their oft brief stay. Ken continued: “They perilously perched themselves on the supporting rails underneath boxcars on a freight train, dangerously riding just inches away from the shiny rails on the roadbed below. Sometimes they found an open door on a boxcar and could ride for miles in relative comfort. Of course, all of this was illegal and if a railroad detective, known as a “bull,” found them, the hobos were chased away or sometimes turned over to the local police.”
Ken further noted that visitors arriving at the “jungle” were usually welcomed to join in with the others, concocting a pot of stew and sharing tall tales about their interstate wanderings. Hobos foraged nearby neighborhoods looking for a handout or offering to perform chores in exchange for a meal. Homes closest to the railroad were those most likely to be targeted for a knock on the door.
“A Mrs. Williams on Unaka Avenue seemed to be a favorite place to stop,” said Ken. “Evidently, she was a kind and understanding soul who would feed several men at one time, always having enough food to share with them. On the other side of town in the Southwest Addition near Southside School, these men would come to the door and ask if they could have a small bite to eat, not wanting to press their luck. My mother, Dottie Harrison, routinely fixed sandwiches and milk and even served regular meals to them. They took the food into the yard, wolfed it down and were on their way in no time flat.”
The hobo enthusiast said he used to wonder how these drifters knew which residents would give them food because there were houses lining the streets in all directions. He assumed hobos would inform newcomers where they might get a meal or do some work. The kids in my neighborhood,” said Ken, “had heard of hobo marks which acted as road signs to help them survive. They located resources by reading these marks, a kind of universal language.”
Harrison produced a second sketch that showed some of the literally dozens of hobo symbols that alerted others of both positive and negative situations surrounding a targeted home. Ken commented: “A ‘+’ mark on your gatepost or garage was one of the best compliments of all, the mark of a person willing to help another in need,” Ken said. He seemed to recall there was a “+” on his family’s fence."
Like the dying hobo in the 1927 song, the impoverished railroad riders of bygone days and their “Hobo Jungles” have pretty much vanished from the American scene.