Hobohemia: The Jungle

City life is interesting but full of danger. ... The flophouse and the cheap hotel compel promiscuity, but do not encourage intimacy or neighborliness. On the outskirts of cities, however, the homeless men have established social centers that they call "jungles," places where the hobos congregate to pass their leisure time outside the urban centers.1

Allan Pinkerton made one of the first descriptions of a hobo jungle back in 1877. While he doesn't use the term hobo (it doesn't come into custom until the 1890s), he does describe a scene which would become all too common along the railroad lines in the coming decades. This scene was reported as repeatedly occuring along the line of the Boston and Albany railroad.

It is night, and in a deep gorge near the railroad, where the trains are constantly passing and repassing, a collection of some twenty or thirty of these outcasts, who have been driven from a neighboring village, are gathered. At the bottom of the gorge, where a stream of water leaps down from the hills through the stone archway sustaining the tracks, are sleeping or dozing, about a fire which has been kindled for warmth and to cook what little the wanderers may have stolen or begged for their supper, a large number of the poor fellows, exhausted from their day's march; for, like "Joe" in Dickens's "Bleak House," it is their destiny to be kept "moving on" and on. In different places are seen old and young men who have retired from the companionship of their fellows, to brood over their misfortunes, regret lost opportunities in the past, or possibly to resolve upon better things for the future....2

Night encampment of tramps near the Boston and Albany Railroad.

Pinkerton hit on the elements of what would come to be called "the jungle". Not only are the geographical characteristics correct, but his description of a 'society' of outcasts, gathering, eating, and sleeping together is a fine description of the social function of the jungle.

The hobo jungle was a place to rest and repair while on the road outside of the city. Some were more permanent than others, but all shared the element of refuge, an out-of-the-way place where the hobo could eat, sleep, read a newspaper and wash himself before heading out again.

Accordingly, the jungle was located near the railroad, close enough to get to and from the train yard or rail line but not so close as to attract unwanted attention. According to Anderson, accessibilty to the railroad is but one of the requirements for a good jungle. "It should be located in a dry and shady place that permits sleeping on the ground. There should be plenty of water for cooking and bathing and wood enough to keep the pot boiling. If there is a general store near by where bread, meat, and vegetables may be had, so much the better. For those who have no money, but enough courage to 'bum lumps' it is well that the jungles be not too far from a town, though far enough to escape the attention of the natives and officials, the town "clowns."3


Anderson divides jungle camps into two classes: the temporary and the permanent. Temporary jungles are just stop-overs or relay stations inhabited intermittantly by men temporarily stranded and seeking a place to lay-over without being molested by authorities or criminals. Of course, a smart man would look first for a place where others have already been because there he might find a pot to cook in. In places where the trains stop frequently - always a convenience - these camps tend to become more permanent.

In the jungle camp, especially a permanent jungle camp, might be found pots or kettles, utensils of various kinds, a line strung on which to dry clothes or a mirror with which a man might more easily shave. Much in the tradition of the cowboy camp whose basic tenet is that you leave it as you found it, the jungle has certain rules designed to keep it functional and self-sustaining.

Jungle Crimes

  • Making fire by night in jungles subject to raids.
  • "hi-jacking" or robbing men at night when sleeping in the jungles
  • "buzzing" or making the jungle a permanent hangout for jungle "buzzards" who subsist on the leavings of meals
  • wasting food or destroying it after eating is a serious crime
  • leaving pots and other utensils dirty after using
  • cooking without first hustling fuel
  • destroying jungle equipment
"In addition to these fixed offenses are other crimes which are dealt with as they arise. Men are supposed to use cooking cans for cooking only, "boiling up" cans for washing clothing, coffee cans to cook coffee, etc. After using, guests are expected to clean utensils, dry them, and leave them turned bottom side up so that they will not fill with rainwater and rust. They are expected to keep the camp clean. To enforce such common-sense rules, self-appointed committees come into existence."4

link to jungle description
link to excerpt from my life
link to other
link to songs

The jungle also is the kindergarten for the road kid and the academy for all. Here are learned the techniques of survival and even enjoyment. There is, at the simplest stage, the two-times table of tramping: the shorthand code of symbols which the floater's eye picks up on a town's signboard or gatepost, the half-moons and triangles and interlinked circles and crossed lines that indicate in hieroglyphic detail the reception a hobo can expect and the potentials for working or bumming.5

While often viewed as the haven in which hobo law, lore and tradition were passed on, the jungle could also be a place of danger and intimidation. Police, railroad bulls and criminals could find scapegoats or easy targets in the jungle congregation.

On all counts, the good and bad, the jungle was the place where "the fledgling learns to behave like an old timer," where the "slang... and the cant of the tramp class is circulated" and where the "stories and songs current among the men of the road, the sentiments, the attitudes, and the philosophy" of the migratory laborer are aired and passed on.6

As the railroad carried the hobo from the jungles to the cities and back again, it also carried the slang, stories, songs and sentiments that were the heart of hobo culture.

riding the rails