Monday, July 6, 2009

Faint Voices from Ypsilanti's Onetime Hobo Jungles

Dusty Diary just heard the midnight train's 4 mournful whistles, and the distant clacking of its wheels through Depot Town. It is the day's last train, whose whoops every night remind me that I should already have gone to bed. It is the last of the 6 daily Amtrak Wolverine Line trains that pass through Ypsilanti:

7:35 a.m.: Westbound from Detroit
Just after noon: Westbound
1:10 p.m.: Eastbound to Detroit
6 p.m.: Eastbound
6:30 p.m.: Westbound
12:15 a.m.: Eastbound, home to Detroit at half past midnight

Dusty Diary is not the only one in Ypsilanti who listens for the last train. Hundreds of others, lost in time, also hear it, from Frog Island, from under a bridge, and from a forest near Depot Town.

They were the men, women, and children who rode the rails from town to town, seeking work, adventure, or flight from their pasts. They sometimes wound up in the old City Hall jail on Cross Street. The jail offered respite from another night outdoors in the jungle and a meal other than the slumgullion mulligan stew being cooked up over a fire and containing begged, borrowed, or stolen cabbage, onion, carrot, and maybe a few dogs'-meat butchers' scraps.

They camped in Frog Island and according to hobo Harold Jones, under a railroad trestle near Huron River Dr. (likely the Forest St. railroad bridge). A separate source once told Dusty D that a camp also once existed in the woods just northeast of the bridge.

In this 1995 Ann Arbor News article at left, historian Peter Fletcher is quoted as saying the old city dump on South Grove Road was also a camp: "There would be a dozen down there at one time." Dusty D is guessing that the dump in question is the old junkyard once on Water Street, and not the old city dump, 1945-1960s, that once stood at junction of Huron St. and I-94.

As to the paucity of local historical data on hoboes, Fletcher is quoted as saying, "It's just human nature to gauze over some of the negative aspects...we do a lot better remembering the positive things."

Nope. It's the forgotten and the deliberately forgotten who often have the most interesting stories. Dusty D imagines she can almost hear snatches of those stories, the voices and the smell of cabbage and coffee drifting from the nighttime jungle camp fire, passing the time till the midnight train.


Anonymous said...

You captured perfectly my fascination with train whistles...and trains. I have always been a little scared of trains because my cousin told me that hobos would jump on and off of them. I didn't know a hobo was a name for a lifestyle. LOL!

Awesome post, I got goosebumps!

Dusty D said...

Jen: Thank you for your kind comments. If you're interested in reading more about the subject, may I recommend "Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression" by Errol Uys. This book more than any other except maybe "Beggars of Life" gave me a look into the world of the hobo--which included teenagers and children--some of whom left home to wander the continent by hopping trains with their parents' blessing.

It was a different time.

More info on "Riding":

Dusty D said...

Added video: "Riding the Rails," a docu based on the book mentioned about teen hoboes.