Rochester man’s “museum” pays homage to American tramp

ROCHESTER, NY – There are so many jobs available these days, it seems employers are literally begging people to come and work for them. But there was a time when finding work was not so easy. This led to a whole group of people jumping on trains in search of work.

A Rochester man tells their stories while trying to change what he says are misperceptions of the American bum.

Rusty rails contain the forgotten stories of a forgotten way of life. A nasty road, traveled by train, of a community living on the margins of society.

“I want them to know what a wanderer is and I don’t want them to misinterpret,” said Tim Moylan. “They were just vagabonds. They couldn’t settle down.

When it comes to bums, Moylan is sort of an expert. He knows many vagrants and workers. Men and women hopping in freight cars, scouring the country in search of work.

“I am proud of all the vagrants I have met,” he said.

Proud of the longtime friends he has made, Moylan wants their stories told. A bedroom upstairs of his Rochester apartment is a museum, paying homage to these friends. People with names like “Iowa Blackie” and “Grain Car George”.

Those who have lived fleeting lives to earn a living.

“They were there and they worked,” Moylan said. “They just couldn’t settle down.”

Seeing the country by train, for many, came out of necessity. After the Civil War, many soldiers hopped on westbound freight trains in search of work on the US border. The practice developed during the Great Depression, as people left home in search of work.

“Every photograph means something to me,” he said, pointing to the dozens of photos of tramp friends on the wall of his museum.

Moylan’s reasons for this homage to tramps are personal. His father, he says, was a tramp for 45 years. In fact, Moylan says his father was considered a “crown prince of the vagabonds”.

“Connecticut Slim” – his hobo name – worked as a cook and dishwasher.

“He said he couldn’t settle in one place,” Moylan said. “But he said he wasn’t a bum.”

It is the mistaken perception of vagrants that Moylan wants to shatter. He pays homage to his father and others like him, although he says he has only met his father four or five times.

“There was no hate there,” he said. “He was a wanderer. And that’s what almost all of your vagrants are.

Moylan has not followed in his father’s footsteps, although he says he hopped on trains as a child to visit relatives.

“It was exciting,” he said of his train tours. “I knew where to find them because they were going very slowly in the city where I lived. They were going very slow and we were jumping.”

Moylan says many of the men and women who have stayed on track are like family. Some are in fact family.

“New York Maggie” and “Connecticut Shorty” are the vagrant names of her biological sisters. Both are well known in hobo circles. They join Moylan the second weekend of each August in Britt, Iowa. The city rolls out the red carpet to thousands of tramps and their families for an annual convention. A family that recently recognized Moylan as the annual “Hobo King”.

“My father was very well liked by the tramp family,” he said. “And all these other vagrants that I met, none would have a bad word about him.”

Another reason Moylan wants to share the story of the American tramp. To set the record straight, on the forgotten who lived on the fringes of society, straddling the rails, living in ways most can only imagine.

“A tramp really is, and a lot of people don’t understand, he’s not a tramp. Not a tramp. He’s a traveler, he said. “And he’s ready to go.”

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