Winner 1998

The American Experience: Riding the Rails

WGBH Educational Foundation, The American History Project/Out of the Blue Productions, The American Experience

They were called “hobos.” They were called “bums.” During the Great Depression, they faced long bread lines in cities or the dust bowl of a rural famine. They were teenagers, most of them, and today we might call them “the homeless.” It is estimated that as many as a quarter million teenagers were homeless during the Great Depression and an uncounted number of them spent their days in search of work, a meal, or adventure by hopping freight cars. This film is a stirring tribute to those teens who jumped fences into train yards and spent days and nights atop or inside boxcars, fighting the weather and each other, and dodging armed railroad police known as “bulls.” Theirs was truly an “American Experience,” which is brought back to life in the recollections of eight (seven men and one woman) who lived to tell their tales. Producers Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys, editor Howard Sharp, and cinematographer Samuel Henriques, under the guiding hand of executive consultant Judy Crichton and executive producer Margaret Drain, present a moving and poetic tribute to an earlier time. But the real strength of this program indeed the entire American Experience series lies in the lessons it holds for contemporary society. As ever, we see ourselves reflected in these personal stories of tragedy and triumph. We recognize that the lonesome train whistle has been replaced by the honking horn, and the cliche of the adventurous life of the itinerant hobo has been supplanted by the inglorious plight of today’s homeless. Yet, at the heart of our culture is a persistent optimism that buoys the American spirit. For providing this reminder in troubling times, a Peabody Award to The American Experience: Riding the Rails.