Hobos have always been willing workers at the drop of a hat to capitalize in Kansas on the rumor of a job in Montana, to jump a freight and a few days later hop down with sleeves rolled up. Life as a hobo was romantic, difficult, and dangerous.

Hobo Symbols and Modern Nomad Codes

To help each other they developed secret hoboglyphs to direct other hobos to food, water, or work—or away from dangerous elements.

The symbols or signs etched on a bridge, water tank or building were a silent grapevine read in singlet or sequence by all who knew the secret code.

Because hobos weren’t always welcome and the majority were illiterate, these messages evolved to be simple and easy to read, while protecting a conspiracy. The innocent ones such as a cross meant a traveler could score a free meal for sitting through a sermon, a tick-tack-toe pattern signified a jail, while the more complex such as crossed circles or rectangles indicated social interactions. There were some consistencies throughout the system such as circles and arrows for direction and hash marks or crossed lines for trouble.

A chain of marks scrawled in coal or chalk on RR water tanks and fences near the yard led to neighboring doorsteps of ladies who were a soft touch for a set-down meal or had a barking dog. They told the next train tramp what to expect and saved miles of shoe wear.

Some codes are still clearly tongue-in-cheek warning modern-day hobos, and anyone else who may read them, of such perils as parking tickets, lawn sprinklers, undercover officers and biting dogs, and the welcomed locations of well-stocked bathrooms, rich dumpsters, and car washes for bathing.

However, the old hoboglyphs went the way of the stream trains in the 1950s as diesel-electric locomotives replaced steam, making them harder to chase. The water tanks were torn down destroying the hobo newspaper that he had put ads on. He scratched his moniker, an arrow in the direction of travel, and date. In this way hobos across the steel gridiron overlaying America kept track of each other