RIDING THE RAILS IN THE GREAT DEPRESSION
The Great Depression was a significant event in world history and was of particular importance to American history. It was a worldwide economic recession that occurred primarily during the 1930s. A recession is a term that refers to a general economic downturn resulting in high levels of unemployment and a loss in consumer spending. As a result, during the Great Depression, many people struggled to find work while businesses struggled to survive with an overall reduction in the sales of goods and services. Historians have identified several different causes of the events of the Great Depression, including: the stock market crash of 1929, the purchasing of stocks on margin, the wide income gap between the wealthy and the poor, the loss of consumer spending, the failure of banks to deal with the crisis, protectionism and the weather conditions of the American Midwest.
A key feature of the Great Depression in the United States was the high levels of unemployment that resulted from the Stock Market Crash of 1929. For example, at the heights of the Great Depression the unemployment rate reached as high as 25%. Due to this high level of unemployment, life for many people in the Great Depression was difficult. In particular, poverty among the working-class was widespread during the Great Depression and it impacted their lives in several ways including: housing, travel, and quality of life.
For example, the lack of income meant that people could not afford basic housing. Many people had their homes or farms foreclosed on by the banks. This means that because the people could not make payments the bank forced them out of their property. As such, the Great Depression caused many people to search for other ways of life and led to high levels of homelessness. For instance, a common feature of the Great Depression in the United States was the establishment of shantytowns or ‘Hoovervilles’. These shantytowns were often built on the edges of major cities, and were named after United States President Herbert Hoover. He was the President during the start and early years of the Great Depression in the United States and was blamed for many of the hardships by the working-class people. At the height of the Great Depression, there were thousands of Hoovervilles across the United States and hundreds of thousands of people made their homes in these shantytowns. Life in these Hoovervilles was difficult and caused many people to migrate throughout the United States in search of better opportunities elsewhere. One of the most famous ways in which people migrated during the timeframe of the Great Depression was by ‘riding the rails’ on trains. This issue will be discussed more below.
Migration was a central component of life for many struggling working-class people in the United States during the Great Depression. This was likely best seen in the events of the Dust Bowl from the American Midwest. The Dust Bowl is the term used to refer to the drought conditions that occurred across North America during the 1930s and the time period of the Great Depression. Also referred to as the Dirty Thirties, the Dust Bowl affected over 100,000,000 acres of agricultural land across Canada and the United States. In the United States, it was generally centered on farms in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Famously, many of them relocated to the west coast in hopes of finding employment in other agricultural work, but were often met with the harsh unemployment caused by the Great Depression, which was devastating all parts of the country at that time. Entire families loaded all of their belongings onto their vehicles as they made the arduous journey out of the drought-stricken area. The Dust Bowl migration remains the largest migration in United States history, which occurred over a relatively short period of time.
As stated above, an example of migration in the Great Depression was the movement of mostly homeless young men who travelled across the United States and Canada in search of work. They made these journeys on trains. However, since they were unemployed and homeless, the men did not have the money to afford a ticket and instead boarded trains (freight and passenger) illegally by riding in freight cars or on the top of freight cars. This practice was referred to as ‘riding the rails’ and while present before the onset of the Great Depression, it became much more common during the height of the recession. Some estimates put the total number of migrants who rode the rails at over two million. The men travelled along busy rail lines in search of work and better conditions in other parts of the country. The issue became so large that the rail companies employed workers to find and remove the unwanted riders. As well, the young men often found that conditions were no better in other parts of the country and their journey often did not result in a better life for themselves.