The Issaquah Depot Museum was built more than 130 years ago, and it offers a number of clues as to the people who’ve passed through it. Lumber purchased to construct the building now forms an interior wall, and still bears the Tibbetts’ & Sons lumber stamp. Somewhere along the way, a child dropped a china dog between the floorboards. And a hobo named Miller left his mark on a freight room door. Along with the silhouette of a man in a stove-pipe hat, the credo “Miller is my name” is written on the door, in some sooty substance.
This past December, conservation professional Peter Malarkey undertook a two-day stabilization of the hobo graffiti, which serves to both preserve and enhance the graffiti. Malarkey’s work on the graffiti was made possible by a grant from 4Culture, and it insures the ongoing preservation of this unique piece of Issaquah’s past.
In our 2015 exhibit and program, Hobos & Homelessness, we explored the often-romantic notions that surround “the Hobo.” The first hobos were Civil War vets returning home by rail, often looking for employment along the way. An economic Depression during the 1870s led to an increase in hobos. As the 19th Century progressed, westward expansion and the growth of the railroad contributed to both the need for migrant labor and the means to get to places where workers were needed. Any of the nation’s economic crises encouraged people (usually men) to join the ranks of those who rode the rails looking for work. During the Depression, many of the people riding the rails were in their late teens and early 20s, and had left home because their parents could no longer support them.
The National Coalition for the Homeless writes that, “While we may today think of a hobo as a laid-back free spirit riding the rails with a bindle for a pillow, the mass migration of these laborers was born of destitution and desperation, akin to the life of the Joads portrayed in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”. Rambling Rudy Phillips agreed, reminding us that “For every mile of beautiful scenery and warm sunshine, there are hundreds of miles of cold, dark nights, no food and no one to care whether I live or die.” Life on the move was hard, and dangerous.
Miller’s graffiti is not the only sign of hobo culture in Issaquah. Other hobo graffiti was discovered during the Depot’s restoration in the 1990s. During the Depression, Town Council minutes note, Issaquah’s town marshal was known to let vagrants spend the night in the jail if there were any free cells. An ongoing hobo camp also existed near the water tower south of town, where the steam trains would stop to take on water. Since the trains stopped here, it served as a convenient place to hop on or off the train. Kids growing up in Issaquah in the late 1930s and early 1940s remember walking to school past the hobo camp. The concrete footings from the water tower are still visible along the Rainier Trail.
Many thanks to 4Culture for their support of the graffiti restoration.