Riding the Rails During the Great Depression

From Ashland, KY to Portland, OR - 1931

From Ashland, KY to Portland, OR – 1931

In 1931, at the age of 20, my Dad and 7 of his friends left their homes in Kentucky and headed West on the rails during the Great Depression. Dad kept a little diary of the trip in a small notebook written in pencil.

Following are a few excerpts from his travel diary (written in blue italics) with some of my own comments inserted in regular text:

The date is Wednesday, April 22, 1931.  It’s raining and snowing.  I have a one-way ticket to Portland, Ore. We catch train No. 1 bound for Cincinnati and bid Ashland goodbye at 8:55 a.m. There are eight of us. All nice fellows to be sure. Their names are Charles E. Ball, Bennet Tussey, Sam Elsworth and myself of Ashland. Paul A. Vaughan of Ironton, O. Charles R. “Buzz” Waldron of Russell, Ky. Kenneth Ames of Catlettsburg, Ky. And Louis E. Hannon of Maysville, Ky.

Wouldn’t it be just so much fun to travel across country by rail. To be able to see this country without all of the hustle and bustle of “hurry up and get there”. I just did a curiousity search on Amtrack for today’s fares from Ashland, KY to Portland, OR.  Looks like for a reserved coach seat the price  ranges from $326 to $440 one way.  Quite a difference in cost from the 30’s………

We are stopped by a C&O agent in Cinn. who tells us that we can’t take the Big 4 train out of there on the ticket. We slip around and ask the Conductor of the Big 4 and he says it’s all right so that saves us 24 hours delay but loses $150.00 for the C&O. We leave Cinn. at 1:00 p.m. and arrive in Chicago at 7:45 p.m. 

Chicago in the 30’s! My, but that conjures up a lot of images. Of course, all my images are from history books and old movies. I think of Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart.  Dad’s next entry just made me laugh. Although if I landed in Chicago in the 30’s, I probably would have done the exact same thing………

After eating a big supper we try to find Al Capone’s name in the telephone book but don’t have any luck though.

A penny? Just a penny? Sheesh, the government now wants to eliminate them altogether………

A few minutes later a drunk wants to borrow a penny from us. It isn’t long till he is kicked out by the cop in the Depot.

Well, we’re on the Portland Rose at last. It leaves at 10:15 just 2 ½ hours after we arrive. We all stretch out in the seat and prepare for a night’s rest. We can’t afford a sleeper.

We cross the Miss. River just after midnite. I wake up in Ames, Iowa Thursday morning just at daylight. The next town of any importance was Omaha, Neb. We arrived there at 9:45 a.m.

We only have 20 minutes to find a restaurant. We don’t have any too much time either for the train is ready to go when we get back.  It’s snowing pretty hard but it isn’t sticking. 10:05 and we leave Omaha.

We pass through a town called Columbus but it isn’t in Ohio.  It happens to be in Nebraska.

I’ve seen this same scene in some of the old black and white movies I watch. I can picture it all so easily………

Well, the big time is now starting, all 8 of us are in the smoker. Buzz is playing a French harp and we are all singing. We’re getting a big hand from the passengers out in the coach.

We pass on through North Platte, Julesburg, Sidney and Cheyenne at 8:25. It seems that we went into Colorado at Julesburg and right back out again. Everything is white with snow and we can see plenty of jackrabbits and pheasants.

We travel on through Laramie, Rawling and Green River but it isn’t a drink. I had to consult my timetable cause I was asleep. At 6:00 we’re just coming into Kemmerer. We leave Wyoming and enter Idaho at Pegram. We don’t stop though. The train stops 5 minutes at Montpelier and 10 minutes at Pocatello. We stop a minute at Boise, the capital of Idaho, and I get a snapshot of the Depot and the mountains. We get another picture at Nampa.

I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest. I’m sure it was magnificent then because it’s still beautiful now………

We got into Oregon in Nyssa and right back out again. We’re on the Snake River. We stop at Huntington, Oregon and change our watch for the 2nd time since we left home. We pass through the Columbia River Gorge and follow the river on into Portland. It sure was beautiful. We passed waterfalls, one that fell 600 feet. Cliffs that rise 500 and 600 feet straight into the air. Every once in a while I can see the highway about halfway up the mountain. It is just too beautiful for words. We arrived in Portland at 7:45 Saturday morning. 

Seems to be the cry of the times………

One of the boys made a wise one.  He said that we couldn’t get lost because we wasn’t goin anyplace. 

So there is the first part of the trip. I remember a train ride I had as a child in the 50’s. That’s another story for another time!

Statistics indicate that during the Great Depression approximately 250,000 teenagers (out of about four million jobless) were riding the rails. 

In 1932, Southern Pacific agents ejected 683,457 trespassers from the company’s trains. The price of trespassing on the rails was high: The Interstate Commerce Commission recorded 5,962 trespassers killed and injured in the first 10 months of 1932. See PBS.ORG for more information on Riding the Rails during The Great Depression.

22 comments on “Riding the Rails During the Great Depression

  1. gpcox says:

    I’ve been here before, but came back for a refresher and glad I did.

  2. cindy knoke says:

    Fascinating history!

  3. Reblogged this on LIVING WITH MY ANCESTORS and commented:

    Well, I’ve been waiting for a notification from WordPress that I’ve reached my one year anniversary blogging. Oops! It never arrived. I knew it was January but didn’t remember the date. So, silly me, I went and looked and I missed it! But that’s okay. I thought what I would do is repost my very first ever blog entry. When I first started my blog, I was just going write about my family history. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the information I had was not much at all! So, I decided to branch out and started adding bits of life in general. As many things often do, I find it is branching again as I have now added my new hobby of photography. Enjoy!

  4. How fortunate that your father kept a diary of his trip.

  5. Truly, a spirited story of bravery and courage–how lucky you are to have the diary to tell this piece of his life.

  6. This is just wild that this went on in this country. It’s one of the more fascinating passages of our history. Great post!

  7. Flora Poste says:

    Thanks for sharing this interesting piece of history!

  8. Amy says:

    Thank you so much for sharing the story! How precious the diary is.

  9. Happy Blog Anniversary! : )

  10. Wonderful post! Excited me to know they came through my town of Cincinnati!

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