Tramping through history, men on the move

Sandy Vasko

    It was the 1870's and a whole army of men were on the move throughout the nation. They moved mostly by train, well-hidden in freight cars.
    Some were new immigrants who could not find a job; many were men who had fought and seen too much during the Civil War. Others were refugees from the slums of the large eastern cities. They were generally known as tramps.
    Braidwood was a well-known destination among these men. Coal was coming into its own, factories, railroads and home-heating needs meant the demand for coal exceeded the amount produced.
    Braidwood reputation for jobs in the mines was wide-spread. We read on Aug.  6,   1875,    “Our   city    (Braidwood) is becoming quite a place for tramps. They come here to pick up diamonds, but they don't.”
    They all arrived by train. Almost all the trains were searched on arrival, and sometimes the conductor made quite a haul. We read in March 1876, “Nine tramps were ‘scooped’ out of cars on the incoming freight train on Tuesday.”
    Three years later the catch had increased, “Only 17 tramps rested from their weary labors in the calaboose on Monday night.”
    The tramp mode of transportation was not always the safest way to travel. We read in May of 1879, “Run over by the cars - As the train was leaving Braidwood yesterday (Friday) evening for Chicago, two men, said to be tramps attempted to board the train, one of them succeeded, but the other was unfortunate, missed the steps and was thrown under the wheels which passed over one of his legs, crushing it terribly. Amputation was necessary. It was reported that he has since died. McGill is the name he gives and stated that he was from Chicago.”
    These tramps were also very slippery fish. They escaped one spot only to cause trouble in another. In November of 1879 we read, “On Monday night quite a number of hard looking tramps swooped down on our city (Wilmington) and tried to carry things by storm generally.
    “Their rule was to ‘go as you please’ it would seem. They went through John McManus's saloon, appropriating what whiskey, etc., they wanted, and raising Cain in a most defiant manner, knowing that our city was temporarily without a calaboose. Marshal Keeley finally caged the gang - numbering six or seven - in a freight car, and subsequently succeeded in shipping them out of town.  
    “It seems that they didn't go far, however, but alighted at Braidwood and proposed taking possession of the city. One of their first acts was to break into the Methodist Church and build a fire, making it headquarters pro tem; they afterward broke into the C. & W. Coal Company's office and made themselves at home, and subsequently committed other depredations until the police officers surprised the vagabonds and arrested the gang.  
    “Five of them were handcuffed and taken to Joliet jail on Wednesday evening, while two more remained in the Braidwood calaboose until more handcuffs could be obtained. Some thought that the fellows rather courted arrest, that they might be ‘sent up’ 60 or 90 days long enough to put them through the winter season. They are bad eggs, certainly.”
    Sometimes being thrown in the calaboose was no so bad. We read in the same week, “Let none hereafter question the refining influences of female society, even under the most unfavorable circumstances. A female prisoner in the calaboose this week - for drunkenness and fighting insisted upon embracing and kissing a number of dirty tramps, also behind bars, before she left the bridewell.”
    And it seems that tramps were also attracted to churches, “Three tramps entered the Catholic Church on Tuesday night and enjoyed free lodging - taking the carpet from the altar for covering.  They decamped early in the morning, however, without molesting anything further. This makes two churches so entered lately.”
    There was apparently a good side to having tramps everywhere. We read in October of 1880, “A lamp burst in the depot in Braidwood, the other evening, and came near causing a big fire. A lone tramp was there at the time, however, and he smothered the flames with his coat. Tramps are good for something after all.”
    The last time I have found tramps mentioned was in 1883, “Two tramps stole two pairs of shoes from Mrs. O'Donnell's store on Thursday at dinner time and made off, when a small boy ‘gave them away’. Then Pat Leo gave chase and brought the thieves back and made them disgorge. Well done, Patrick.”
    Tramp armies came and went, after World War I, during the Great Depression and in the 1930's they appeared all over the country.