Monday, April 2, 2018

Don B Snyder - Part 4: Riding the Rails 2; Coming Home

Climbing My Family Tree: Don B Snyder
Don B Snyder
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This is Part 4 of a 13-part blog series sharing my Grand-uncle Don’s life story, in his own words, via an autobiography sent to me by Don’s grandson, Ron Oldfield, after Ron stumbled across one of my prior posts about his grandfather. It is shared with the permission of both of Don’s children and Ron Oldfield. [Note – Anything in brackets with green type is my added explanation of something in Don’s text.]

Don’s story:

Part 4 - Riding the Rails II: Coming Home

[While home recovering from the foot injury gotten in the Athletic show (described in Part 2 of this series)], the truant officer came and wanted me to go back to school. I said I couldn’t. When it healed I joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. We didn’t goof off as one might think. We worked hard and were in excellent shape. I hate to tell this, but after three months a guy I knew said his father died and they wouldn’t let him go home. He knew I had experiences riding the rails and coaxed me to go home with him. I really didn’t want to, but then I thought “why not?” so I did.  That was a mistake. [Throughout the rest of the story he refers to his traveling companion as “Ick”.]

We were 250 miles from the nearest railroad, but we hitchhiked to it in one day. All that was there was a water tank and barren hills. As it was getting dark I thought we might have made a booboo. We finally heard a train whistle echoing in the hills and, sure enough, it came and stopped to take on water. There were no empty boxcars so we climbed into a gondola (coal car) about six feet high. To our surprise, there must have been a dozen people in it, including two women. We heard a brakey [railroad company brakeman] walking and kept quiet, but one guy made a noise and he heard it and climbed up. Instead of chewing us out, he said: “My god, you will freeze to death.” He then said, “follow me.” We did and he came across a boxcar with a tin seal on it. He broke the seal and told us to get in. We did and he was right. We would have been awful cold. We crossed the Great Salt Lake. All trains stop in the middle to take on water. It gave us all a chance to get out of the boxcar to get warm as the sun had come up, and it sure felt good. I’ll never forget, of the other people there was a couple of women with their husbands. One was a very pretty young lady, and I thought, “what a shame for her to be in that situation”. As I said before, times were very bad and when people tried to go away looking for work, it was about the only way they could travel.

Climbing My Family Tree: Family Riding the Rails in the Great Depression. Photo in the Public Domain.
Family Riding the Rails in the Great Depression. Public Domain.
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          The train took us to Ogden, Utah. There was a dairy there where we could get free buttermilk, which we did. Some rancher was there unloading milk and asked us if we could milk cows. Ick said “yes, we were raised on a farm,” the old liar. He offered us a job milking cows for $30 a month and board. It was on a ranch about 70 miles north of Ogden. I thought “yeah, probably some line shack in the wilderness,” so we said no. The train we came in on was the Western Pacific, so to get to Salt Lake City we had to catch the Union Pacific. They had a bull there that got a quarter for everyone he caught. Those he caught got 91 days on the rock pile, cheap labor. Anyways, we caught the train to Salt Lake City. No empties so we had to get on a tank car, standing on a wooden walk and hanging on a rail around the car. There also were three other guys on it. As we slowed down in the Salt Lake yards, I spotted the bull [railroad company security detective] up ahead. Before we got to him, we jumped off and headed up a street where there were some houses and the street was perpendicular to the railroad. I knew he couldn’t follow us on the street so I was not in any hurry. I glanced back and there he was about 15 feet behind me. I took off like a big ____ bird yelling at Ick to do the same. After going a block we looked back and no one was in sight. Ick said, “Let’s go up this street toward town.” I said, “No! He would know we wouldn’t go back in the country but towards town.” We did go straight ahead, crossed a highway and went up a hill so we could see what was going on. Sure enough, we could see him putting the three guys in a car.

          Whew, close one! We then had to walk north to south to get to the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to get to Denver. Boy, that was a long walk from Salt Lake City. There at Provo, Utah we caught the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to Denver. That was a nice ride after what we had been through. We were in a boxcar with about eight other guys. The weather was warm and the train at places went slow as we went up the Rocky Mountains. I remember one guy had a can and we came along a stream, crystal clear dashing down the mountain. The guy with the can jumped off and got some water. We pulled him back in the car. Then we all had a good drink. Another guy had some bread, a little hard, but we poured some water on it to soften it and another man had some sugar and we all had some. It tasted like cake to us.

Climbing My Family Tre: Freight-hopping, National Archives Archeological Site [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Freight-hopping, National Archives Archeological Site [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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          The train rolled slowly up the mountain. It finally stopped. There was a house nearby and I said, “let’s try to get something to eat.” I had hardly ever done this, but we would give it a try. I figured maybe a lot of fellows did this, but it was worth a try. A nice fellow came to the door and said no. We said “O.K.,” and [he] suddenly said, “Why not?” He, his wife, and two kids were at the table, just finishing supper. Just as we sat down the train whistled (gave the highball, meaning it was leaving). He laughed and gave us some bread and we ran to the train. It was already moving slowly. I held up my arms and the guys in the boxcar pulled me up and in. Ick was not so fortunate. He caught the hangers at the end of the car, crawled along a small rail at the bottom of the car and made it. I felt sure he would fall off. If he did I’d jump off too and we would have froze high in the mountains. Up ahead around the bend, we saw the train going into the Moffat Tunnel. It was the longest railroad tunnel in the country at six and a half miles long. We then slammed the doors shut as the coal burning engines let out a lot of smoke. One guy got claustrophobia and begged us to open the door a bit. We did and the smoke piled in. We slammed it shut. Later we did it again with the same results. The train was going real slow and we finally stopped. We opened it again and the smoke piled in. The guy got scared again. We slammed it shut and one guy explained the situation. Going up the grade we had one or two pushers on the back end. When it stopped we were right on top of the continental divide. There the pushers cut loose and went back. From then on we moved pretty good. When we entered the tunnel it was daylight. When we exited it was dark. [Experience it a bit: “a ride through the Moffat Tunnel, part 1”, YouTube video, HERE] There was a man in Toledo who was called ‘King of the Hoboes’. I’d seen his picture in the paper with articles. I met him downtown in Toledo and mentioned I used to ride the rails. He didn’t seem impressed. I asked him if he ever went through the Moffat Tunnel. He hesitated and then said “yes.” I asked, “inside or outside?” He hesitated again and said “outside.” I asked him if the smoke didn’t bother him. The old liar said, “I put a wet handkerchief over my mouth.” That was the end of our consultation. He died some years back, I think.

Climbing My Family Tree: Benefits of construction of Moffat Tunnel,  Popular Science magazine, November 1922
Benefits of construction of Moffat Tunnel,  Popular Science magazine, November 1922
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          Coming east out of Denver we had to catch a meat run. We did and found an empty reefer. It had six or eight guys in it. The next day I went on top to get some fresh air. After a while, I saw a guy crawl out of the other end of the car towards me. You had to crawl and hang on to the boardwalk, as the train was going so fast. He was an awful looking guy, bottom of the barrel. As he approached me and got 12 or 15 feet from me I said,“that’s far enough.” He wanted me to go into the other end with him. I knew what he wanted. I said no again. He hesitated and I had decided if he came close, I would do humanity a favor by kicking him off. I was strong and I knew I could do it. At 70 miles an hour, no one would have ever found him in that prairie country. Somehow he got the message and went back.

          After dark we crossed the Colorado and Nebraska line, stopping at a small town called McCook, Nebraska. A bull [railroad company security detective] or somebody called us out of the car. We walked on and by the time he had got us all off, Ick and I were out of the yards. I don’t think I mentioned it, this was the Burlington route from Denver to Chicago. I said, “Ick, let’s go around the yards and catch it leaving.” We did and watched as they searched the train. When they went back it took off fast and we had to catch it from the engine. About 50 miles down the line it stopped at another small town named Arapaho, Nebraska. It was pitch dark and you couldn’t see anything. I said “Ick, let’s go back,” as the steam engine was throwing off small pieces of slate that kind of stung us. I thought he heard me so I climbed down the ladder. Pitch dark, so I just stepped off knowing I would hit the stones. I didn’t, just floated through the air. It was on a bridge and I fell 30-40 feet on a few dead tree branches with my feet near the water. Ick had noticed me not being there and found we were on a bridge. He crawled along the track and the train took off. He yelled and luckily I had hit on my back. I could hardly answer him. He came down and found me. Asked me to move and I couldn’t. He said he would go for help. I didn’t think, but must have scared the dickens out of him as I said, “hurry, I don’t think I’m going to make it.” As he left I thought “here I am busted up in a deep ditch over a thousand miles from home, no money.” It wasn’t very encouraging. After about a half hour I heard voices. It was midnight on Saturday and the town dance had broken up. These small towns out there don’t have much excitement. I think everyone (kids) and others came out. Anyways, they found me. I had thought my lungs were punctured as I could only take short breaths. They tried to figure out a way to get me up this embankment. One guy said we could get the undertaker’s basket. I said, “no, I’ll be in that soon enough.” Then they said, “let’s try to carry him.” About eight guys picked me up and by stumbling and falling they got me up and to the hotel. There they woke up the town doctor and he examined me. Then he took x-rays and put a rubber pipe up my penis and it came out blood which showed I had an injured kidney. He did the same the next day and blood came out again. On the third day, it came out urine which showed it was healing. I was on a liquid diet the first three days with no food. On the fourth day, they said I could go downstairs to eat. I was so dizzy I almost passed out on the big winding stairs. All I had was a small bowl of soup and a few crackers. I felt better the next day and the doctor put tape from my chest center down to my waist as I had two rib fractures in front and two broken ribs in back, plus a chipped pelvis. Maybe more but he didn’t say. On the second day, two well-dressed men visited me. I think one was a lawyer from the railroad. He asked me a lot of questions about the accident and I leveled with him, as I had nothing to hide. One thing he nonchalantly asked was how I knew what train to catch. I told him someone in the yards in Denver told me. I signed his paper and he left. The next day I was shocked. He had brought the entire train crew to my room. He lined them up across the room. They were in their train clothes, holding their hats looking scared to death. Then he asked me to point out the man that told me what train to catch. I looked at them and said it wasn’t any one of them. Boy, you couldn’t buy a job then in the 1935 depression. Funny thing is it was a yardman that told me. Also, that was not the train we left Denver on. About an hour later we had pulled onto a side switch and stopped. Soon another train was passing us going the same way fairly slow. I said, “Ick, that train is faster than this one so let’s cross over to it.” Sort of dangerous as there isn’t much space between them, but we did it. That was the train I fell from.

"CCC Boy Injured in Fall from RR Bridge" & "Card of Thanks"
 Public Mirror, June 18, 1936 (Arapahoe, NE), used with permission
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On the sixth day, we thanked everyone for being so kind to us. The marshal gave me a notation of my injuries, which I never used. That was 67 years ago and I still have it. We traveled all day hitchhiking across Nebraska to Omaha. To cross the Missouri River it cost ten cents apiece, which was all the money we had. We tried to talk the toll man out of it, but the bum said no and took our last 20 cents. We crossed the river to Council Bluffs, Iowa. It was around midnight and started to rain. Where to go? I said, “let’s go to the city jail, where we can sleep till morning.” Back then people would often do that to get out of the bad weather. Now! Where was the jail? We came across a cop and he told us where it was. It wasn’t too far away and we finally got there. We checked in at the front desk, but I didn’t tell them of my injuries. They took us to a room that had three steel cots over each other with no blankets. Some guy was sleeping on the lower bunk, but I’ll bet not for long. Ick said, “you take the middle one.” I tried, but couldn’t do it. He helped me and I finally got in it. It turned out to be one of the most miserable nights in my life. It was just hard steel and every way I turned it hurt bad and I moaned and groaned. We left Council Bluffs and got to Iowa City. Passing a house at the edge of town, we saw a guy on his front porch. He said hi. We could hear the radio and it was Joe Louis fighting, against James Braddock I think. He said come onto the porch and listen if we wanted to. We did and I think he gave us something to eat, then said we could sleep on his front porch as it was getting late. We thanked him again and took off in the morning.

Climbing My Family Tree: Hitchhiking 1938. Napa Valley, California. Farm Security Administration
Hitchhiking 1938. Napa Valley, California. Farm Security Administration
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In Davenport, Iowa we were walking down the street and a woman passed us going the other way. She stopped, turned around and asked, “are you hungry?” Ick said,“yes, we hadn’t ate for three days.” She took us to her place and we ate along with her husband and two kids. Those depression days were bad, but a lot of people had compassion.

One thing that surprised me, we had split up, since it was easier for one person to get a ride rather than two. I had him get in front so he would get a ride first. We didn’t arrange a meeting, as one of us might get a long ride. Later on, I got a ride to the Mississippi River. It was a long bridge and only a few walking it. I looked up ahead and saw a guy with his jacket over his left shoulder and a funny lope as he walked. Ick. It had to be him and it was. We got to Fort Wayne and it was dark. He wanted to hitch, but I didn’t, so we split up again. I slept in a junkyard and the next day I caught a freight on the Nickleplate Railroad to Fostoria, Ohio, and then a train to Findlay right by my house. They were surprised to see me. Ick had called them when he left me in Fort Wayne and said I was in a hospital and might not make it. What a mix-up. Later I sort of wondered why no one bothered to reply. It was later on that I found out he had lied. His father was alive and well and working at the Cooper Tire Company. I later worked at the Cooper, too, and I knew him and liked him. Ick became a tinsmith and one time I stopped at his house next to Wright Field at Dayton, Ohio. He seemed quite successful as he had a nice house, some thoroughbred horses and about five or six businesses next door that he rented out. The family embarrassed me by saying I was some sort of legend. He died some years back.


  1. To read Don's story in order, do I start with 52 Ancestors #7? First-hand account of riding the rails? I can't pass that up!

  2. To read his story, in his own words, you start with Part 1, Riding the Rails Growing Up (or maybe the intro post “A Treasure to Share” which will give you the projected schedule for when the subsequent entries will go up. Part 5 goes up tonight.) The 52 Ancestors post, is a compilation of my research on him as of the time I posted it in 2014 — it includes a quotes from newspaper articles I found on him as an amateur boxer, and when he was with the 38th Infantry in WW2, among other things. This fills in detail I hadn’t found then, but I think is still interesting due to the newspaper articles. The post titled “Don Snyder’s Fall” gives another focus on the fall described in the above post, based off of a letter he wrote after contacting the mayor of Arapaho’s nearly 60 years later about the fall, and the mayor’s response. I received it from another new-to-me cousin, his sister’s daughter, after she also stumbled across the 52 Ancestors #7 post. Hope this helps. Thanks for stopping by and reading!


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