Youth during the Great Depression Essay

One of the greatest times of despair and hardship in all of American history was the Great Depression. People lost homes, livelihoods, incomes, savings, investments; many were so devastated that suicide rates sky-rocketed. The rich lost so much of their wealth and the poor only got poorer and times became, nearly, hopeless for many living in that era. Many youths, young children, and teenagers left home or were forced from home, many became train car hoppers or hobos, riding the rails from town to town and state to state seeking better opportunities (Keene and et. al. 670-671). There is little doubt that experiences of the rail riding youths of the Depression were impacted and influenced but those experiences in a number of different ways; some positive and some negative.


On October 29, 1929 the Stock market crashed. This day is often called “Black Tuesday.” This crash did not just affect the United States, but multiple countries and economics all over the world. Herbert Hoover held the office of United States President when the Depression began and despite his dedication to optimism, conditions were only getting worse. Many Americans blamed Hoover for the Depression as a whole. Of course, this historical event cannot be blamed on any one person, but a number of economic variables, financial aspects, and other contributions. Because unemployment

was so extreme in so many parts of the country that many people became almost entirely migrant; walking, hitchhiking, or riding train cars. As can be seen above, people were essential living like refugees all over the nation. Whenever news of jobs was heard, sometimes, hundreds of people would arrive to apply. The Human traffic moving from one place to another was immense. Approximately 250, 000 teenagers, mostly male, hit the road and rode the rails


The 2009 film “Riding the Rails” interviews, discusses, and delves into the experiences of the teens during the Depression through the stories of the men and women who lived it. These stories have the ability to make you think at the time, the culture, and hardships experienced by the generations before us and how very different the cultural mentality is today. Again there were many reasons that the youths of the Depression left home and found themselves riding the rails. Clarence Lee’s father approached him and explained that this there simply was not enough to feed him anymore; he left home the next day. Peggy DeHart and her traveling companion, Rene Champion, hitchhiked across the country and occasionally road the trains. Many left farmlands to head for big cities finding world in shipyards and docks. Some traveled west to California and became ‘cowboys” or fruit pickers. Jim Mitchell recalled feeling like he had made a terrible mistake getting on the trains after spending his first cold and dark night. He recalled receiving a birthday cake from his mother, mailed to him and he had to eat alone on a hill (Uys).

Life on the rails was not easy, cold nights, with little shelter, hunger, the physical dangers of losing limbs by hopping train cars, and the constant harassment of the

railroad police officers. For those who were lucky work was found and a new future forged, but that simply was not true for most. 17-year-old, James San Jule traveled the rails from the state of Oklahoma to New York City. He lived in a subway kiosk for months, stealing food to get by (Uys). The hobos of the rails developed their own language of symbols and markers that would alert other travelers where they could find a meal, shelter, or other hand-outs. This traditional code and variations of it are still used today by modern hobos. They are often left on logs, old buildings, and rocks near homeless camps.

These youths learned how to be self sufficient and self-reliant at a much younger age, which no doubt made them more productive and mature. However them modern culture would have a difficult time with simply sending away children on their own because you can no longer provide for them. Many of the people’s stories told in the film “Riding the Rails” admit that there was a lot of loneliness, hopelessness, and tears. However, for better or worse, most certainly their experiences made life long lasting impact on their lives (2009). Many look back and see it as a foolish time of their life when they were young, but there is still a sadness present of knowing they were just children trying to make their way in the world all alone like grown adults. In 1931 Franklin Delano Roosevelt, came into the office of President of the United States; established his New Deal initiatives; he was determined to heal the damage done by the Depression and repair the lives of Americans (Keene and et. al. 671-672). The New Deal offered domestic programs intended to create jobs, develop the arts, and encourage positive change and reform.


Although Roosevelt’s New Deal endeavors were not perfect, it was costly and could not conquer unemployment completely. At the same time it motivated and restored the faith of Americans, created many federal jobs, and prevented further collapse. Ultimately, the Depression would end and America would recover. The Great Depression remains one of the most significant eras of American history. It brought great hardship, destitution, and starvation for many Americans; it stripped land owners of their incomes and property and forced individuals, little more than children, to be forced out of their homes in order to face the world alone. Today we do things a little differently. We have known other difficult economic times, most recently the downward spiral of the economy and the rise of unemployment that hit its worst point since the 1930s, in 2010. However, despite metaphorical comparisons, the experiences of the recent Depression still does not compare to the Great Depression and the experiences of the people during that time.


Keene, Jennifer d., and et. al. 2.Visions of America. Pearson, 2009. Print.

Uys, Michael, prod. Riding the Rails. Prod. Lexi Lovell. Veoh, 2010. Film. 9 Apr 2014. .