DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — Humpy Davis And The Rail Riders

For a time, my father, Kermit Vorland, was a hobo (not a “bum,” he insisted) during the Great Depression. He traveled in or on top of railroad cars to and from the West Coast, looking for and sometimes finding work. I can recall him telling of his fear of the private police who checked the trains from time to time.

Eric Sevareid also rode the rails and lived in the “jungles” adjacent to the tracks. He described his experiences in his 1946 book, “Not So Wild A Dream.” He mentions the town of Harvey, N.D., not far from Dad’s farm home near Wellsburg.

“One of the most renowned and fearsome characters to dwellers in the jungle was Humpy Davis, railway dick at Harvey. He, it appeared, was a bearlike hunchback who took a fiendish pride in his ability to clean out a crowded box car, single-handedly, in one minute flat. Normally he used a club, and the score of broken arms and heads was running extremely high, when a conclave of hobos out in Vancouver, B.C., decided that Humpy must be eliminated for the good of all concerned.

“They elected a tall Negro, famous for his marksmanship, to do the job. News travels fast by the jungle grapevine. Humpy knew ― and waited.

“One day he observed a Negro, alone, walking steadily toward him between the tracks. This was it. Humpy stood still, letting him come on. Suddenly, the Negro stopped, swung up his hand, and fired. The legend relates that Humpy did not move did not raise his arm. Instead, he shouted: “Shoot at my head, you black bastard, shoot at my head.” The assassin fired again. Humpy, unmoved, repeated his instruction.

“The Negro fired his six shots, yelled in astonishment and terror and, as he began to run, was brought down by a single shot. Humpy walked across the yards to a beer parlor, unbuttoned his shirt, and exhibited his bulletproof vest with six indentions over his heart so closely grouped that a coffee mug could cover them all.

“It is a favorite story in the jungle. If one doubts it, he is wise not to express his doubt.”

Sevareid’s last sentence clearly suggests he is making reference to a legend he had heard during his travels, not necessarily true. And, in fact, my long deceased parents would likely agree. My maternal grandfather worked for the Soo Liine. My folks had a respectful attitude about the admittedly tough Humpy Davis. So did the parents of my boyhood friend, Ralph Berenger, whose father also worked for the railroad.

Thus, my guess is Humpy never killed anyone, let alone an emissary of the hobos.

Dave Vorland’s 34-page book “Paris in Monochrome,” produced last year, is available at “VorlandPhoto” at Blurb.com.

2 thoughts on “DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — Humpy Davis And The Rail Riders”

  • Kristi Vorland January 25, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    Great story! Love hearing all your memories of family!

  • james Geimer April 22, 2021 at 12:46 pm

    As a child in the late 50s, early 60s my Uncle John, from Minneapolis would tell stories to me about his freight hopping days during the depression, and just before the war. He claimed to have encountered Humpy Davis on numerous occasions, usually involving clubs and rock salt. His stories and advice inspired me to take up freight hopping as a vacation activity,( along with surfing and backpacking) during the late 60s and throughout the 70s and into the early 80s. After Santa Fe and Burlington merger and 9-11, riding rails became more difficult and less rider friendly.


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