“Chicago is the greatest railway center in the United States. No one knows these facts better than the hobo. It is a fact that trains from all points of the compass are constantly entering and leaving the city over its 39 different railways. According to the Chicago City Manual, there are 2,840 miles of steam railways within the city limits. The mileage of steam railroad track in Chicago is equal to the entire railroad mileage in Switzerland and Belgium, and is greater than the steam railroad mileage found in each of the kingdoms of Denmark, Holland, Norway, and Portugal. Twenty-five through package cars leave Chicago every day for 18,000 shipping points in 44 states.”
On Hobos and Homelessness— Nels Anderson
Given that Chicago was the hub of the American railroad system, it’s not a surprise that the largest ‘”hobo jungles” were here. The area around North Dearborn Street, (Washington Square–better known as Bughouse Square) was one of the safe harbors for itinerant men and women. In the years between 1900 and 1920, much was changing in American life and this part of the city, known then as “Tower Town,” because of its proximity to the water tower. It was known as a neighborhood of bars like the Dill Pickle Club, brothels and gambling dens. It was also the center of the avant garde in Chicago. The nascent American art form of jazz could be found here, although mostly on the South side. It also had devotees among this crown of free thinkers.
The historian, Bill Savage, informs me that all manner of thinkers inhabited Bughouse Square; a place that Sandburg had read his poetry, Dr. Ben Reitman treated hobos and hookers for the clap, and where other luminaries like James Joyce, Yeats, Emma Goldman and John Reed had spoken there in favor of unionization. So Bughouse Square was more than a platform for political cranks, crack-pots and whack-jobs. It was a plain air marketplace for American ideas. Socialists, liberals, America-firsters, anarchists, and those hung for the Haymarket bombings were all habitue’s of Bughouse Square. It is where the term “soapbox” actually started; named for the platform whichever whack-job or organizer stood upon while addressing his “constituency.”
It was a fascinating place where people of all beliefs workshopped ideas about freedom and democracy, and every idealistic faction was represented. When I was a kid, there was a nutjob named Lar Daly who ran for everything from mayor to President in every election. He dressed up like Uncle Sam and was known as Lar “America First” Daly. He was the right-wing whackjob of his day and, well into the late 60’s, railed about everything from repealing civil rights bills to outlawing mini-skirts. He was as entertaining as hell, though. He had a bullhorn and an Uncle Sam hat and a sandwich board. It is no accident that his brand of politics had its roots in Bughouse Square.
Almost every hobo jungle had an “A No.1”. . .a top dog. . .a mayor of sorts. His responsibility was to adjudicate disputes between hobos and provide a plan. He would also act as a mouthpiece for the community in dealing with cops, bulls railyard dicks and other aggrieved parties.