Lure of the Locomotive

By David Abe |  Globe Staff  |  11/30/2003

Scruffy, sleepless, and wearing sunglasses that obscure a gaze fixed on the next journey, Jack Rothwell is something of a sociable loner, a solo traveler who roams the country in search of strangers to befriend.

The 45-year-old orphan calls himself Amtrak Jack, a moniker he leaves proudly on his answering machine and beside the buzzer to his base between trips, a spartan one-bedroom apartment in Mission Hill.

Rothwell never worked for Amtrak, or any other train company. But when he sports one of the 27 belt buckles he has collected from lines such as the Heber Creeper or the Galloping Goose, carries an old caboose lantern, and pulls his corduroy cap low over his forehead, he could pass for a brakeman or an engineer, like his uncle.

The short, pot-bellied train enthusiast says he never wanted such a conventional job, though he considered it and even applied for a few positions over the years. Rather than clipping tickets or sweeping stations, he has taken a less secure, less limiting track, which for years has relegated him to riding freight class.

"A modern-day hobo, that's what they call me free and dandy," he says.
Despite heightened security in the past few years, federal railroad officials and police estimate that a few thousand vagabond veterans like Amtrak Jack continue to find holes in the fences around the nation's freight yards, using scanners to listen for the next train heading out of town, and stealthily slip into unlocked boxcars, journeying wherever the locomotives take them.

Over the years, much has been written to romanticize the freedom of life as a hobo some say the word comes from the Latin "homo bonus," or good man but there's often more solitude than glamour in crossing the country in bumpy, slow-moving railway cars. There are also risks.

While asleep, a hobo may find his boxcar suddenly locked, from the outside. Certain lines that are popular with those looking for free rides bring the danger of scamps, grifters, and other thieving drifters. And there's the risk of being seriously injured running through the night to hop a moving car as happened to Rothwell a few years ago or getting busted and spending a night in jail for trespassing, a plight he has managed to avoid so far.

Why put himself in such peril?

"I do it because it's in my blood," he says, "and for the honor of making another trip, seeing the countryside pass, and for the love of all the speed and power of the trains."

The number of trespassers who have died on the nation's railways has risen in the past few years, from 463 people in 2000 to 541 in 2002, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, which doesn't break the numbers down for hobos. In Massachusetts, between January 2000 and this past August, 44 trespassers died on the state's railway properties.

Officials at CSX Corp., the East Coast's largest freight rail company, say they've ratcheted up security, along with federal and state authorities, and have less tolerance for those trespassing on their 23,000 miles of track or illegally boarding one of the 1,200 trains they operate every day.
Last year, the company issued warnings to more than 9,500 trespassers and ordered the arrest of 801 people caught anywhere from their freight yards to their trains, up from 731 arrests in 2001.

"I would describe hobos as a constant phenomenon in our system," said Dan Murphy, a CSX spokesman. "They should know it's dangerous, what they're doing, and we'll prosecute them to the full extent of the law for trespassing."

Such tough talk doesn't faze Rothwell.


Born in Brookline, he had a tough lot growing up. At age 8, his mother died of lung cancer, and two years later, not long after giving him his first train set, a Lionel, his father died from the same disease.

Still, Rothwell has fond memories of his childhood, and one in particular his first train trip. The 20-hour ride in 1962 started from South Station and crossed northwest through Buffalo, where his family switched to the New York Central's Wolverine line, and ended in Detroit.

When they arrived, his uncle, an engineer who worked for New York Central, met them at the station, and Rothwell remembers him saying, "Jackie, how would you like to drive the train?" 

The two walked into the engineer's car and the boy sat in the engineer's chair. In perhaps his most formative experience, the engineer took his hand and pushed the throttle, setting the train forward at about 4 miles per hour and providing the boy a thrill that still hasn't worn off. Then the engineer took his hand and moved it to the brake, a sound so loud he says he can still hear it, and Rothwell says he vowed then, "I'm going to ride trains the rest of my life."

It would be another decade before he took his first solo trip. Despite more tough times his ailing grandmother sent him to a group home he never forgot the intense experience of that trip to Detroit. "I was meeting other kids, playing checkers and Tonka trucks, and going to the observation car for a Coca-Cola," he says. "It was awesome."

At 14, he saved $60 from his allowance at the group home and decided one day to bolt from school "I didn't have the patience to sit in a class," he says for a quick trip to New York City. He took the New Haven Railroad, leaving South Station at noon only to return by midnight, with just enough time there, he says, to get a Coke, some postcards, and visit the top of the Empire State Building.

By the time he reached 16, he started looking farther over toward the horizon, to the west. On his first such trip, when he found he had little money to spare once he reached Chicago, some guy in a freight yard showed him where to hop the Santa Fe line to California, he says, and 21 hours later, with only a bottle of water, a few cans of spaghetti, and a lantern, he arrived in Barstow.

"I just wanted to see what it was like," he says some 3 million miles later, claiming to have traveled to all the states on the continent, including Alaska, and to have collected about 5,000 addresses of folks he met along the way. "I didn't think about the consequences; I just went."

Since then, after finally graduating from Brookline High School at 20, he has amassed a collection of 170 sew-on patches, nearly all from different rail lines. "The patches," he says, "are my pay, my honor."

As much as he thrives on being on the move, on watching the foothills rise into mountains, or feeling the roar of the locomotives, part of the lure remains the escape. Especially during the holidays. Over the years, with little family left to share Thanksgiving or Christmas, he has often packed his duffel bag, walked to the tracks, found himself a train, and set off on a spontaneous jaunt.

Escape, he has learned, doesn't quench the loneliness. For that, he brings along cards to play solitaire, a mobile TV with extra batteries, and plenty of whiskey, preferably Seagrams 7. "A freight car sure can get lonely," he says, "but there's always the next town, always the chance I'll meet someone at the next stop, and that eases the pain."

When not traveling and because of the fall he took a few years ago, he doesn't set out as often as he used to he spends his days doing odd jobs, cleaning, or painting apartments in the neighborhood, monitoring the weather for a local TV station, and helping close a bar he frequents in South Station, where he's now a part of the family. He also tends to his own collection of trains, scores of vintage model boxcars, cabooses, tankers, and flat cars.

"He's the most wonderful, helpful pain in my butt there is," says Lisa Holzemer, a bartender at Clarke's Turn of the Century Saloon in South Station, who has served Rothwell his trusty rum and Cokes for six years. "His jokes stink, and he may tell you them five times, but everyone loves his adventure stories. He's a good man with a big heart, who happens to love trains."

Despite a bad back and a knee that feels the weather, things are better and more stable than they once were. He lives modestly, with few possessions other than a host of train paraphernalia, everything from an old dynamite cap to a pile of books full of train regulations. Thanks to a state-subsidized apartment, he no longer worries about making the rent each week at a rooming house, or when there wasn't enough, securing a spot in the back of a trolley car in Cleveland Circle.

Though he jokes that he feels like he's 45 going on 85, the aging hobo's health has improved enough for him to start making journeys again. In August, he says, he made his latest trip, clearing more than 4,000 miles, going from Boston to Chicago to Cheyenne, Wyo., in four days.
"It felt terrific," he says. "I didn't lose my touch."

Now he's talking about his next trip, to the South, most likely to New Orleans. He doesn't have any fixed plans, which is normal, but he's thinking about next month, perhaps during the holidays.

"I'm back in the game now," he says. "What happens tomorrow or the next day, who knows, but after that, it's boom-boom, bang-bang, and I'm off to another town."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.  Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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