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Riding the rails is a popular expression for traveling by railroad or other mass-transportation rail systems. It usually implies a consistent use of this mode of transportation, rather than taking a train once in a while or for a short distance. Riding the rails is often used in reference to the Great Depression of the 1920s in America, when many people chose to sneak on board trains to look for work or opportunities in a far away place.
In the 19th century, railroads spread across the United States, bringing new trade and communication opportunities to small towns throughout the country. Whereas in the 18th century, travel to the far coast had involved detouring ships or slow-moving wagons, the railroad system shrunk the nation into a manageable distance. Instead of a six month journey by wagon, by 1876 railroad trips could cross the US in about four days. The railroad system in America changed the entire country, and places that small-town people never dreamed of visiting became accessible.
With the crash of the stock market in 1929, America entered a severe economic depression that altered the country forever. Jobs that had existed for decades were simply not available anymore, and teenagers and men were forced to go searching for work far away in order to feed their families at home. By the 1930s, historians estimate that more than 250,000 teens were riding the rails, traveling illicitly from town to town in search of romance, adventure, and a meal.
Riding the rails had a romantic appeal but a harsh reality. Broke and often starving, this culture of constant train travelers had no roots or protection from danger. With child labor laws in their infancy, young workers were often paid far less than adults and subject to many forms of abuse. As the depression worsened, many older teens were asked or forced to leave their homes by their family, who could no longer afford to feed them. Yet the railroad life also pulled in those drawn to wandering, who wanted to see the world and experience it.
The term “hobo” is frequently used to describe those who made their life riding the rails. Typical portrayals of hobos show an unkempt person with tattered clothes, sipping alcohol while hiding out onboard a train. Naturally, these destitute travelers were met with suspicion and derision, and were often forced to keep moving on, either from need or an inability to give up a transient life.
Today, riding the rails is used as a generic expression for using railroad transportation as a main means of getting around. It still imparts some of the wanderlust and romance of the earlier days, though generally involves much safer circumstances. One long-standing tradition of high school graduates is to travel to Europe and take advantage of the Eurail passes, which allow unlimited travel by rail systems throughout the continent for a short period of time. Riding the rails is a great way to see the country and get a feel for the distance and landscape between big city stops. Although for the most part it has lost the impetus of financial desperation that drove so many to hop on trains in the first place, it retains its romantic image of an adventurous way to travel.
Wasn't this term made an indelible part of American culture by Woody Guthrie? Prior to becoming a famed folks musician, Guthrie was effectively a hobo with a guitar and some of his most celebrated songs involve that aspect of his life.
Guthrie might not have originated the phrase "riding the rails," but a case can be made that he popularized it.