Hopkins County Folk Lore
The Bluff, the Railroad and the Hobo
By Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin Eveland
There's a tradition that began in America almost as soon as railroads came into being. That is the tradition of riding the rails, hobo style.
Hoboes were plentiful for many years and no one referred to them as homeless people back then. They were a community unto themselves for there were such things as Hobo Camps at the big railroad yards across the country.
Hoboes would congregate in these camps near the rail yards, staying there until the urge hit them to move on. Each person traveled lightly usually with a blanket and a pot or skillet for cooking and a change of clothing. They shared their food, throwing whatever they had into the communal pot. Sometimes work was found in laying new tracks for the long trains that carried cattle, produce, lumber and just about anything that you could think of. Others found work as dishwashers in the larger cities, stable hands, and just general manual labor. These men didn't look for work that required much of a commitment or demanded long stints of time. Hoboes were a breed unto their own and wanderlust was the larger part of their makeup.
Hobo Camps could be dangerous for the unseasoned traveler. Hard men frequented the camps and rode the rails for various reasons. Men who were "running from the law" found hopping rails a most effective way of keeping on the move. In those days there were no social security numbers required for any kind of work. It was easy to lose themselves riding the boxcars from city to city. There were fights at the camps and sometimes murders were committed for the want of a few dollars. Many men found it safer to stay in the smaller camps away from the big cities.
That brings us to the railroad that runs through the tiny community of Charleston, near Dawson Springs, KY. Niles Row Road leaves Hwy 109, and about half a mile down you will find the bridge that spans the tracks below. The railroad was cut through layers of rock and sandstone banks and the bridge above it is quite high above the tracks. We children made a ritual of climbing those rocks underneath the bridge until someone fell to the rocks and mud below. Of course that someone was, as usual, yours truly. We were about a third of the way up, sticking our bare toes into crevices, fingers grasping the edges of protruding rocks wherever we could find them. We were about at the height of fifteen feet or so, when I shifted my weight onto loose shale rock. Just a few seconds before I had been singing a little tune, happily climbing to the top as I had done a hundred times before. Then suddenly I'm lying in a pool of mud at the bottom with my shoulder knocked out of place. Let me tell you that a little experience like that will immediately cure a person's inclination for rock climbing. I'm still cured to this day. Rocks are out to get you and they are not your friends!
Back in the 1930's before I was born, the bridge was made of wide, hand-hewn logs. Walking across it one could see between them to the tracks far below. It was still that way as I was growing up. Some of the logs wobbled when stepped upon and produced many a squeal from faint of heart ladies and little children.
Standing on the bridge and looking down the longest expanse of tracks (on your right if you turned off 109) you can see the area where the bluff is, though not the bluff itself. While the bluff isn't large, it does have a good overhang to protect one from the elements. Trees grow around it and on top of it giving the place a cool, inviting respite from the heat during the high months of summer. There is a tiny stream created from the "run off" water trickling down from the top of the bluff. It leads off into the woods towards the railroad, mostly dry except for the rainy season.
A huge tree grew from the base of the bluff. There were heated disputes over which kind of tree it was. Each kid claimed only he/she had superior knowledge about trees and everyone else should just quit wasting time and yammering about it. When an opponent refused to concede, the arguments led to the species of other trees near by. One would say, "If you're so all fired smart, what kind of tree is that one!" "Birch Tree, dag nab it!" The challenger who posed the original question responded with, "It's a White Oak and any dummy ought to know it"! "You calling me a dummy? Well then you're a creep!" Yet another voice came into play "It's a Maple Tree you dimwits and I can prove it. Let's go get my daddy. He'll set you all straight!"
I still don't know what kind of tree it was. However I do remember it's white, crackling bark very distinctly and the rough feel of it as I bounced off its trunk. Of course you will understand this statement as I continue to tell you about our tree. It towered skyward, so high that we couldn't see the top of it. Its white trunk stood about six feet away from our reach as we stood on the bluff top. This tree had a stout, overhanging branch a couple of yards above our heads. Now this branch was just begging to have a rope thrown over it for swinging. The big boys, our older cousins, brothers and heroes, came into the woods one day bringing a spare well rope with them. After much running and leaping by the boys, it was determined which one of them had the longest jump span. The lucky boy with the long skinny legs backed seriously up the slope. His name was Johnny. With head lowered he began to run with all his might. Just as we knew he was going to plunge right over the edge, he flung himself towards the tree. It seemed that he was airborne for a long time with arms and legs flailing in the air. He hit the tree trunk with a tremendous thump! Wrapping arms and legs around it, he held on for dear life. Gradually the fear left his face and we couldn't hear his labored breathing anymore. The rope was then thrown to him. Each coil of rope carried all our hopes of success for many long hours of soaring through the sky. We named the rope Junior. Ole Johnny had a hard time hanging onto that trunk with just two long legs and one arm as he grabbed for Junior over and over again. After numerous attempts, he did manage to grasp the rope amid comments of "Well, finally" and "It took you long enough" from those of us standing safely anchored on solid ground.
With the rope wrapped around his arm, he proceeded to inch upward to the waiting limb. The task was accomplished in no time at all. Now all he had to do now was get back to the bluff top. Swinging himself on the newly secured rope, he began to propel his body backward and forward, building up momentum with each new thrust. You know he never quite made it though. Stranded in mid air, hanging from Junior, he exhibited much patience while his buddies scratched their heads and talked over the situation. Finally a dead limb was found lying on the ground. With the aid of two skinny, tanned arms and two chubby fair ones, the limb was hoisted out to him. Snatching the tip of it, poor Johnny and the deceptive Junior were hauled onto firm ground at last. Johnny did good that day. Like I said, he was one of our heroes.
Afterwards is when I did the bouncing off the tree trunk thing. As I swung out high over the bluff floor, given my absolute state of bliss at the flying sensation I was experiencing, it seemed I never looked where I was headed on the swing back in. I could by that time empathize with the gallant Johnny. Thump! Thump! Thump!
The ground stays moist under the bluff and the rocks damp from the runoff water. The ceiling is dotted with the soot from the campfires of long ago. As a child my pals and I camped beneath the bluff on many occasions. Lying on our blankets at night, we listened for strange noises as we told ghost stories about the hobo's who had camped there many years ago and the Indians who were probably buried right below our makeshift beds. In the afternoon hours, we listened for the chug, chug, chug of the mighty steam engines coming to a halt almost directly in front of the bluff. A well of water about two-foot square had been dug along side the tracks by the railroad for the purpose of filling those thirsty steam boilers. The water had turned completely red from the copper and iron minerals seeping into it. No one knew exactly how deep it was but it was said to "have no bottom" and went "all the way to China."
We sneaked through the bushes and thorns of every description, put there by God for the express purpose of keeping the hobo's away from our bluff and watched in fascination. A man, whom we called the engineer, would yell over his shoulder, "Got to get 'em up to steam boys." Carrying a rope and bucket he would step down from the panting engine. He drew a bucket of water and climbed back into the engine. Without a break in the pace, another man took his place and he too drew his bucket of water and headed for the big, belching engine. This went on until they had enough water to get the train to its next destination. That little well serviced the big steam engines of those days and it serviced me as well!
At seven years old, I was suffering from a horrible case of Poison Ivy thanks to my all time hero and older cousin, Doug. Doug was lucky. He never caught the stuff while I managed to get myself infected with it as soon as the plants sprouted each spring. One day he was playing on a bank covered by Poison Ivy and I wanted to play with him so very much. When he saw that I had stopped short of the bank, he promised a surefire remedy from the dreaded curse of Poison Ivy forever. Plucking a handful of the poisonous leaves, he proceeded to tell me if I would only crush them up and rub them all over my face and body, I would be instantly cured of any ability to catch it. Of course my hero could do no wrong, so I did it. In a few short days my eyes were swollen shut and blisters covered my entire body. I was reduced to wearing underpants only, much to my extreme embarrassment.
My uncle, O.C. Carner was told that the water in that particular well would cure me. He gently lowered me into that tiny well holding me by my arms, then finally by my hands. I can tell you for a fact that there is no bottom to that well! While he dunked me up and down, I kicked furiously and never, no, once, in all that frantic thrashing around, did I ever touch the bottom.
I learned two things that day, copper water doesn't cure Poison Ivy and Doug was no longer my hero!
The caboose was our favorite. We would wait until the train began to build up steam and huff and puff on down the tracks. We watched in eager anticipation until we could see the red caboose rounding the bend. We then broke from our entanglements of brush and briars and ran for the sandbanks several yards away. As the caboose neared, we began "doing tricks" for the man who rode in it. We stood on our heads and turned cartwheels beside the tracks while some of us would climb swiftly to the top of the sandbanks and slide down on our bellies. We had a purpose to our plan and we were rarely disappointed. You see the man in the caboose always rewarded us for showing him our outstanding athletic abilities! As the train clipped past us, magazines would come flying from the caboose and land in wild disarray around us. Most of them were railroad pamphlets, advertising papers and so on. But to us they were like gold. As he drew further away from us, we could always see his arm sticking out the window, waving to us for a very long time it seemed. Settling down with our magazines, oblivious to the heat of the blistering sandstones, and sometimes chewing on Sassafras twigs, we devoured every written word in them.
Hobo's came and went, often staying for a few days at our little bluff in the woods. They would appear from out of nowhere at any given house in the neighborhood and ask for food. Back then, there was no reason to be afraid of them according to my mother. All the families slept with doors and windows open. Even when leaving for an extended stay, the doors were left unlocked. Whatever the lady had on hand in her kitchen was bundled up for the hobo. Cold cornbread or biscuits, a pint of beans, or whatever leftover meat was sitting on the cupboard. It was just "what people did way back then."
We had several tree houses built in the woods and one of them was near the bluff and railroad. It was about twelve feet high and built into the first fork of the tree. It only had a wooden floor with no sides or roof as did our finest treehouse located deeper into the woods. The big boys of the neighborhood had built it and called it Fort Apache. They had taken rungs from some old dilapidated ladder and nailed them to the tree. This provided access where there were no limbs to climb up on. After the big boys considered themselves too grownup to play there, the treehouse was taken over by the Pike girls and me. Mary Jane, Wanda Sue and I were known to each other as Geronimo, Crazy Horse and of course the beautiful little Sue always got to be Pocahontas. We spent every waking moment together from grade school through high school. We were inseparable.
We had decided to camp overnight in the roofless "fort" near the bluff and railroad tracks. Yessiree, we were daring and fearless and nothing could keep us from our plan. We planned to rope ourselves in so we wouldn't fall off the sideless platform. We hauled countless paper sacks of food, water and cookies up the makeshift rungs on that old tree. Once everything was "up" we settled down for the night. We figured as how we had better go ahead and tie ourselves in, as it would be getting dark in a few hours. We tied the ropes around our waists and then to the tree truck, giving ourselves just enough slack to lay down. We never thought of how difficult it might be to untie those ropes in the middle of the night if the call of nature demanded immediate attention.
It was late afternoon. We fished out a pack of Camel cigarettes we had saved our pennies for and bought at Sammy Ramsey's store. Out came the big box of kitchen matches that one of us had brought along and we commenced smoking the first store-bought cigarettes we had ever tried. We were plugging away at the cigarettes, though coughing and turning blue in the face. After a few of those torturous puffs, we decided that we would go back to smoking cornsilk or rabbit tobacco. They were just as bad as the Camels, but if were bad, at least the cornsilk was free. All one needed for a fine smoke with cornsilk was the tassel or silk from ripe ears of corn, a brown paper sack and matches. The cornsilk must be dry and a deep purple, reddish color to be right for smoking. The silk was rolled into pieces of sack paper making a nice long cigar. By sucking our tongues several times we were able to get up a good volume of spit. All that was left to do was lick the paper to seal it round the dried silk. When that huge stogie was lit, flames shot up and burned profusely. After it was blown out, there was usually an inch or more of ashes hanging onto the end of it. That's all there was to it. Simple as that. Puffing on that gigantic cigar was rough going though. It burned the throat and watered the eyes. If more than a few puffs were taken, nausea came to visit and didn't leave you for several hours. Secretly, and never admitting it to each other, we were glad corn was only grown once a year.
While discussing the pros and cons of smoking, we heard a noise not common to the woods. Immediately all conversation ceased and our cigarettes became motionless, trapped between the tips of our thumb and forefinger. Someone was struggling through the undergrowth and the footsteps were coming from the direction of the railroad a few yards away. Afraid to breathe, we instantly laid down, flattening ourselves against the wooden deck. It was a man walking with head down, watching every step he took and furiously slinging off the briars that caught at his clothing. Mumbling and cursing he made his way towards us. Daring a peep over the side we could see that he was ill kept with long unruly hair. He wasn't carrying a pack either, so we knew it wasn't a hobo. It didn't take a fortuneteller for us to know that he was an escaped criminal from the state pen at Eddyville and he was hiding from the law, probably for murder. He was not a country man, this we knew, for no one borne to the country stomped around in the woods the way he did. "Oh God, (Rats, our favorite word, somehow didn't seem right for this occasion) what if he sees the cigarette smoke or smells it? Then he'll see us and you know dang well, he'll come after us!" One of us whispered, "We're tied to the tree. We can't get away from him!" In a single motion the three of us, quickly snubbed out the giveaway cigarettes. Even brushing the butts against the wooden floor sounded loud, like crushing sheets of newspaper between your hands. We began working on the rope knots that bound our waists. The criminal kept walking clumsily toward us. Heavens to Betsey! He stopped just a few feet from our treetop hideaway. Our hands froze on the knots and all movement ceased as we held our breath in unparalleled fear. Our hearts were beating a loud crescendo as we pushed the screams building in our throats barely into submission. "We are just three little girls and God we need your help. Please, Oh please help us!" I prayed. The three of us clutched hands tightly and silently prayed some more, just for good measure.
Well God saved us 'cause the man made his way towards the bluff. Evidently he had been there before, as he knew where to go. We waited for what seemed like hours and then hurriedly tried again to untie the ropes binding us to the tree. Shaking hands are not good tools for fast work as we soon found out. Finally we were loose and quiet as the Indians we pretended to be, though not brave and fearless anymore, we climbed down the ladder. Walking in hunched over positions we took a back trail. It led away from and circled the bluff. When we were sure we had enough distance covered between the criminal and us, we began to run like the wind and not even Geronimo himself could not have caught us.
We got home safely that evening to curl thankfully in our own little beds. The next day, the three of us were in for a big surprise. It seems that the backstabbing Sammy Ramsey had told our mothers we had bought cigarettes from him. He told on us, even though he sold them to us! The Rat! God, in his infinite mercy had saved us from the convict, however HE didn't see fit to save us from our Mommas! We hated Sammy for a long time after that. We shot him dirty looks on any occasion afforded us and made sure all the kids knew the dirty deed he had pulled on us. He was so smug, that Sammy Ramsey. That rascal just laughed at us when we glued him with our "death to the traitor" famous glare. We punished him by buying our candy and gum from the Nash's store in front of Charleston School. Take that Sammy Ramsey!
One time, it was around the middle 1930's; a hobo came in the fall of the year and stayed through most of the winter. I wasn't even a gleam in my daddy's eye yet and no one I have talked with remembers his name but he "looked to be about forty years old." What was unique about this hobo was that he rode the freight trains with his young son. The boy was "pert near ten or twelve years old." The hobo asked for food for his little charge and himself for about a week or so. From that time on, he asked for work before he asked for food.
Families gave him odd jobs but there wasn't a lot of work to be done at that time of the year. Stacking firewood, drawing water or filling coal buckets were a few of the odd jobs he did. Whether he was given work or not, the families of lower Niles Row Road fed the two strangers for several months.
Some of the men of the neighborhood, especially my father's cousin, Texal Calvert, got to striking up conversations with the hobo as the time went by. The Calvert's house stood right next to the railroad bridge. From what the old folks say, Texal and the hobo spent many fall afternoons sitting on the green painted porch. The hobo "rolled his own" with store bought papers and tobacco kept in a red tin box. Now old Texal was a fine upstanding citizen even though he was known for being just a tad on the nosy side. Let's just say he wasn't a bit bashful when it came to asking anyone their most private business. It seems the hobo had a knack for saying what was expected of him without revealing his personal affairs. Actually it ended up that Texal did all the talking. As with most men of Texal's personality, he never knew that he was the one doing all the talking and often boasted of his personal knowledge of the tramp and his affairs.
The little hobo began to play with the neighborhood children sometimes too. The kind ladies had soft spot and great sympathy for the motherless little boy. He was given clothes, a coat and shoes for the cold weather. There was snow on the ground part of that winter and a few of the men ambled on down to the bluff to see how the pair was making out. They found an open cook fire, a few pots and pans and clothes in a sack. A couple of dishes and time wore cups found resting places on the rocky ledges. Further back into the bluff where the rocks started their rise from the earth and the ceiling was just high enough to lie under, one could find shelter from the wind and snow. That's where they found the bed. Piles of quilts and blankets given them by generous wives and mothers were laid out upon the ground. There the little boy snuggled down each night, drawing warmth from his father under a mountain of handmade quilts.
There came a time, a month or so before the spring thaw, when the hobo didn't come to the houses anymore. It had also been several days since the little boy had shown up to play with the neighborhood kids. The folks of Niles Road became concerned for the welfare of the two who had become familiar faces at their back doors.
Again, several of the men made it their business to visit the bluff in the woods. The place was deserted. The only sign that the man and his son had ever been there were recent sooty circles from their campfire stamped forever on the overhanging rocks.
Some people were offended that the hobo didn't say goodbye. Why, after all they had done for him, feeding him through the winter, clothing his child, it was just plain bad manners, him sneaking off in the middle of the night like that.
Most of the men though understood that the stranger was just being true to his calling. He was, after all, a hobo and never pretended to be anything else. The wanderlust had hit him just as the Crocus' peeped from under the snow. Spring was coming; and the rails were singing to him. It was time to hit the tracks!
Hoboes came and went after that for several years but the hobo with the smiling face and the black haired little boy never returned. People were still talking about the hobo who lived under the bluff as I grew up. We never played in the damp shade there without thinking of him and his little boy. Many years after his departure, we searched endlessly in the soft earth for some relic he could have left behind. A dish or broken knife blade, anything that we could believe was his. Alas, never a scrap was found from their winter sojourn under the bluff. We children were walked aimlessly under the overhang, pointing out sooty smudges on the ceiling that we were sure belonged to the hobo. This man had lived in our bluff years before we were born yet the fascination with this tramp and his unique way of life still held us spellbound.
As my own children grew up, they too were told the story of the hobo and the bluff. They too dug the earth and searched the small confines of the bluff for any sign of the man and little boy who had lived there so many decades before they too, were born. My children will hand down the story to their own children just as my parents did with me. I'm quite sure my grandchildren will explore the bluff for the hobo's relics just as we did before them.
I think I'll tag along. Maybe I didn't dig in the right places, all those many years ago.
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Copyright © 2000 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland
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Nancy Trice, © 2000