I had never watched Cimmaron Strip until recently. The western TV series was only on from 1967 to 1968, and then for years, as far as I know, it wasn’t often shown in reruns, but now it sometimes appears on the H&I (Heroes & Icons) cable channel. Say what you will about cable, that there are too many channels, or it’s expensive, both of which are true, but it can be a useful vehicle for stumbling on old shows you never would have otherwise given the time of day.
True, you can do the same thing with streaming services but often I wind up paralyzed, staring at various shows but never picking one to watch. With cable, for some reason, I’m better about flipping through channels and then spotting something… well, I digress.
I'll Get to the Point Soon
So Cimmaron Strip was on recently, and I came in the middle of an episode called “The Blue Moon Train.”
I didn't intend to watch it, but it started to draw me in. I’m not sure why, although I am a sucker for a good western. And this episode had all the ingredients – a stoic marshal with a lot of integrity played by Stuart Whitman, a dusty old ghost town, a villain, and then later, more villains.
I came into the middle of this episode of Cimmaron Strip, as I said, but I quickly realized that Marshal Jim Crown (Whitman) had a deputy or sidekick of sorts, Francis, who was tied up and gagged and in an old water tower. (Later, after looking it up, Francis was actually a family friend of Crown's, a young man trying to make it in the 1880s Old West as a photographer and reporter. Okay…) If Crown didn’t find Francis… well, the water didn’t appear to be rising, but something bad was going to happen.
So Crown is looking around this abandoned town for Francis, and the bad guy, Broderick Crawford, who had an illustrious career, was walking around, unafraid of being shot or captured by the marshal. Joe Lehigh (Crawford) had apparently made it clear to Crown that if anything happened to him, Francis would never be found. Lehigh may have had a point. Crown was looking everywhere in the ramshackle town but clearly wasn’t thinking his friend might be in the water tower.
I wasn’t thinking about the water tower either. That is, I was watching the show and not thinking much about this blog.
Meanwhile, until I looked up the actor playing the bad guy, I didn’t realize I was watching Broderick Crawford. I had heard of him, but I’m not very familiar with his work. In this episode, he’s a middle aged, paunchy villain, and it was interesting to see him telling the much more fit and rugged Crown what to do. He had leverage, knowing where Francis was tied up, and so he could order the marshal around without the use of a gun.
I know I’m not explaining the episode well, and I’d rather just focus on the history, which I’ll get to in a moment. But it was an extremely entertaining episode, if you like westerns. In fact, when two ominous looking outlaws showed up, drawing their guns on Crown, I actually half jumped out of my seat. I’ve seen, like, hundreds of TV and movie westerns, but this random episode of Cimmaron Strip, I was really enjoying. Plus, one of those ominous outlaws was played by Kevin Hagen, who would later go onto fame playing Doc Baker on Little House on the Prairie. In this, he played a bad guy named Dum Dum. I mean, how couldn’t you enjoy this?
So a little later, a hobo appears, and he refers to signing the registry, and he mentioned writing his name on the water tower. Later, near the end of the episode, after the bad guys were vanquished, Marshal Crown refers to another hobo marking, and so I thought, “Well, this is a good excuse to write about the history of hobos.”
A Little About Hobos
I think most people know that hoboes used to leave markings at homes and businesses where they were well treated, and then other tramps coming along would see those markings and know to go there. Or to stay away.
Of course, hobos probably isn’t the most politically correct term in the world, since it’s another word for homeless, but for a long time throughout popular culture, if you were a hobo, there was kind of a romantic quality about it. Hobos weren’t always thought of as somebody who was down on their luck and without a house. Fairly or not, and again, I'm mostly referring to popular culture, being a hobo was considered a life situation that was chosen, where you’d ride the rails (trains) and see the country and pay your way by doing odd jobs here and there.
In any case, I found myself wondering if this episode was getting history wrong. After all, this show was set in the 1880s. Was the hobo culture that sophisticated in the 1880s, leaving written signs for other hobos on town signs and homes and buildings? As far as I knew, the hobo culture really picked up steam during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
But, no, actually, The Cimmaron Strip more or less got it right.
I haven’t done an exhaustive look at the history of hobos, but I did some digging in online archives in 19th century newspapers. Before I get to that, though, Wikipedia begins a little history of hobos by saying, “It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene. With the end of the American Civil War in the 1860s, many discharged veterans returning home began hopping freight trains. Others looking for work on the American frontier followed the railways west aboard freight trains in the late 19th century.”
It also says that the term originated around 1890 in the west and probably Northwestern United States. That sounds true – I have found a lot of Northwestern newspapers, mostly from Portland, Oregon, in the 1890s, referring to hobos.
For instance, a Portland Oregonian article from December 22, 1890, tells the story of a poor brakeman who was thrown under a moving train by four hobos. The brakeman had told the hobos to get off a train, and then once it began moving, the four men threw the brakeman underneath it. The brakeman scrambled to safety, unhurt, but then the four hobos threw him under the train again. This time, a wheel ran over the brakeman’s leg, cutting it off.
The hobos were arrested, and the brakeman taken to the hospital. I have no idea what happened to after that.
Anyway, maybe the term did originate in the Northwest, but according to a May 24 1894 article (which also ran August 10, 1894) in The Milwaukee Journal, which cites The Baltimore Sun, the term “hobo” originated from Hoboken, New Jersey. According to the article:
"When a man in New York wanted to express an extremely uncomplimentary opinion of a thing or place he would say that it was tough as Hoboken. If he was out all night and felt shaky, he would say that he felt very Hoboken. The term spread over New York and the country. The young ruffians of Hoboken came to be called hobos, which does not require so much effort as would Hobokenites."The Milwaukee Journal, May 24, 1894
So this is a long way of saying that The Cimmaron Strip probably did offer a reasonably accurate portrayal of hobo history.
A Little About Water Towers
But back to the water tower. At some point, Marshal Crown started to suspect that the water tower might be a hiding place – he noticed that hobos had made a point to write their names on the water tower, and clearly, people had been going up there. Meanwhile, I started thinking, “OK, this show was set in the 1880s. Just how long have water towers been around, anyway?”
Water towers have been around even longer than hobos – well, the term, “hobos,” anyway. According to the book, "The Illustrated History of the Elements," by Jan Kozak, water towers have been in Europe since the late Middle Ages, often attached to river mills. But the modern water tower that we see today with the rounded circular water tank, often on four steel legs – that’s been around since at least the mid-1800s.
I found a New York Times article (by going to the online archives at the Cincinnati Public Library) from September 3, 1867, that mentions a water tower being built in Carmansville, New York, a little village eventually swallowed up by New York City. In 1872, the Highbridge Water Tower was constructed in Manhattan.
I found an 1895 article in the Daily Picayune that mentions that South Milwaukee has commenced work "on a new water tower with a capacity for 85,000 gallons of water," which suggests that it was replacing an old tower. Mostly I'm mentioning this because you have to appreciate the humor of this late 19th century anonymous author. After talking about all of the modern features of this water tower, he concluded, "And yet people are not surprised, after all that has been said about building new beer towers in Milwaukee."
Anyway, I’m sure there is plenty more that could be said about water towers, but in case you're hoping that I won't say any more, I'll quit while I'm ahead... or behind.
In any case, I’m glad I discovered Cimmaron Strip. It was a good show, and it’s a shame it only lasted one season. And I might as well share that when I first told my teenage daughters about this blog, I mentioned this particular post. It probably wasn't the best example of what this blog could end up becoming. I mean, I'm talking about Cimmaron Strip, a show that isn't exactly well known, and hobos. And, well, when I mentioned how it would be a post about the history of water towers, they burst out laughing.