A hobo riding the rails, 1930s.
A hobo riding the rails, 1930s. Mark Jay Goebel/Getty

“About seven o’clock one hot summer evening a strange family moved into the little village of Middlesex. Nobody knew where they came from, or who they were. But the neighbors soon made up their minds what they thought of the strangers, for the father was very drunk.”

So begins the original version of The Box-Car Children, written by the 34-year-old schoolteacher Gertrude Chandler Warner in 1924. The book, about four siblings who run away from home after their parents die, would become a hugely popular series—with 146 books to date and an animated movie.

In the first book, the children hide from passing horse-drawn carts and trains, sleep in a haystack and soon come to the woods, where Jess, the older girl, spots a box car sitting on rusty, broken rails. Warner writes, “Her first thought was one of fear; her second, hope for shelter.” The children decide to make it their new home.

Picking up the original Box-Car Children today, the story is still an appealing one. But one element is lost on modern readers: The selection of a boxcar in which to play house seems somewhat random. For readers coming to the book in the 1920s, though, that choice might have seemed more natural. That’s because the image of another boxcar dweller, the rambling tramp or hobo, jolly and free of society’s oppressive norms, was everywhere. At the time Warner was writing the book, “hobohemia” was in a nostalgic moment. The comical, friendly hobo appeared in folk songs, vaudeville acts, novels, and was brought to life in films. Charlie Chaplin got his idea for one of his most famous characters—the Tramp—when he met a hobo in San Francisco.

Hobo sitting on a fence, c.1920
Hobo sitting on a fence, c.1920 California Historical Society Collection/USC/CC BY 3.0

The nostalgia for hobos that would have surrounded Warner and her young readers in the 1920s emerged because the stereotypical train-riding, scrappy migrant worker—who came out of the Civil War, when displaced soldiers began a transient life on the road—was disappearing. For one thing, the extent of the rail system reached a peak in 1916 and then declined as automobiles took over the landscape. The American economy shifted, making it harder for migrant workers to make a living. Historian Todd Depastino calls this “the closing of the wageworkers’ frontier.” He writes in Hobo Citizen that, “the age of speedup and mass communications had marginalized hobohemia, leaving it behind like a deserted right-of-way or a sidetracked boxcar.”

You can read hints of romanticized trampdom in The Box-Car Children. If readers of the children’s book series don’t remember any appearance of tramps in the books, that’s because Warner took it out of the 1942 version of the story, which she re-wrote using a smaller, simpler vocabulary in order to make the books more accessible to young readers. (There is also no drunk father in the 1942 version, if you were wondering.)

But in the 1924 version, two references are explicit. When the children are asleep in the boxcar and are frightened awake by the sound of someone moving outside, Jess says to Henry, “Supposing it was some other tramp, somebody else that wanted to sleep here!” A bit later on, seized with an affection for their beautiful home, the Alden children name their box car “Home for Tramps,” and print the title in fancy lettering inside the car.

A 1989 cover of <em>The Boxcar Children</em>.
A 1989 cover of The Boxcar Children. Courtesy Amazon

Jolly tramp associations abounded in popular culture, but closer to home, Warner would have been thinking about trains a lot while growing up in Putnam, Connecticut. In the early 1900s, the town was a stop on the New England Railroad and the Boston and New York Railroad, both of which are now defunct. The Warner house was right across from the train station, so close that cinders from the passing trains landed on the house and the Warner children were tasked with dusting the windowsills twice a day to keep the house in good shape.

Speaking about the series later, Warner admitted that she had always thought it would be fun to live on her own in a little abandoned train car. “I would like to have done what they did,” she said. “I’d still like to do it.”

But the real people living in box cars—the tramps – had a pretty rough life. They performed hard labor, often for little pay, and built a good part of the train tracks, which then became their homes.

A hobo known as The Pennsylvania Kid left home in 1927 when he was 16 and didn’t look back. “Hoboin’ ain’t easy livin’,” he told the photographer John Lopinot in 1974. “What I been through—I don’t know how I lived.” Lopinot describes the experience of riding in a moving boxcar with Pennsy: “If you sit against the sidewall, the swaying motion of the train bangs your head against the oak boards lining the car.… It’s too rough of a ride to sleep.” The Interstate Commerce Commission estimates that between 1898 and 1908, 48,000 tramps died on freight trains—from complications jumping onto trains or because of the terrible conditions inside of them. Just as many were injured.

Two hobos walk along railway tracks. One carries a brindle.
Two hobos walk along railway tracks. One carries a brindle. Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-50739

But despite the grim reality of life on the rails, Warner took a cheery view of life in a boxcar. The boring tasks of making house with the Alden children becomes a joy when Warner is telling the story. Her careful, enthusiastic chronicling of each domestic success (curtains for the windows! A darling little shelf!) are the small dramas that propel the book forward.

It is interesting today to return to Warner’s earlier boxcar children and re-read the romanticized details of hobo life that remain: the injured dog called Watch who follows the children around; the chipped plates and cups that they delight in using; the single pair of clothing Jess washes for each of them in the stream. That scrappy, glorified life led by the Alden children—one that kids still enjoy today—draws on a kind of nostalgia for the trains and the scrappy, hardened people who rode them.

In 2004, a group of Putnam residents and former students of Warner’s raised enough money to purchase an old boxcar. The Depression-era boxcar would have run on the line that passed by the author’s house when she was a child. It’s now a tiny museum, filled with artifacts from Warner’s quiet life—a desk, some papers and photographs.

Toward the end of her life, Gertrude Chandler Warner finally got to ride in the caboose of a train. According to her biographer, Mary Ellen Ellsworth, Warner’s friend—a retired engineer and road foreman—let her run the engine and blow the whistle of the train. “It was more of a thrill, I think,” Warner said about the experience, “going in after all those years of wishing.”