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Bum’s Jungle much more than lore

A small segment of what was known as Bum’s Jungle in the old South Railroad Yards in Marquette is seen. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

M

ARQUETTE — On any given warm summer day, hundreds if not thousands of locals and tourists will make their way on bike or foot through Founder’s Landing, perhaps stopping to walk the beach, swing over the Whetstone Creek, or climb Gaines’ Rock.

What they may not know is that they’re actually treading on a rather unique piece of Marquette history — Bum’s Jungle.

At least, that’s what residents in Marquette called the collection of people who lived in makeshift shacks along the lake next to the old South Rail Yards. For over half of the 20th century, Bum’s Jungle was an object of both fascination and fear for local residents, especially kids who were told to stay away from the area.

But the individuals who lived in the makeshift “neighborhood” had a sense of community and integrity that would have surprised most of those local residents.

To start off with, the name of the enclave was a bit of a misnomer. Technically, the people who called Bum’s Jungle home weren’t bums. They were hobos, homeless individuals who would set up camp somewhere for a little while, hop aboard a freight train, and then move somewhere else.

Two of the occupants of Marquette's Bum's Jungle are pictured preparing a meal. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

The number of hobos in the country flourished during the Great Depression, when trains were the best way of getting around the country, so it’s not a surprise that there was quite a large number of them living down in South Rail Yards right by Gaines’ Rock.

Both the railroad and the local police tolerated the hobos, as long as they stayed out of trouble. And the hobos actually had a code of honor and policed themselves. If you were to stroll through Bum’s Jungle during its heyday you would’ve noticed many of the hoboes hanging their laundry out to dry, cooking a meal over either an open fire or on a makeshift stove, or just engaging in general conversation.

Hobos considered themselves “drifters,” and nothing more. They believed they were regular part of a civilized society. If a hobo was caught acting like a “bum”–if they were begging or drunk in public, or making a nuisance of themselves to the general community, a “hobo court” would hand out punishment–anything from a lashing from a belt for someone caught fighting, to an enforced bath in Lake Superior, a punishment especially popular for those hobos who didn’t maintain at least an appearance of propriety.

On one rare occasion in 1939, Bum’s Jungle even became the national epicenter of “hobo justice.” J. Leon Lazarovitz, described as the “Chief Justice of the Hobo Kangaroo Court of the United States” and “President of the Rambling Hobo Fellowship of America,” visited Marquette (by train, naturally) to preside over a number of hobo court cases. Seventy-six hobos from around the Upper Midwest made their way to the South Rail Yards to have their cases heard by Lazarovitz.

In the end, 21 of the hoboes were found guilty of their offenses and sentenced various punishments, while the rest of the cases were dismissed.

As the 20th century wore on and society evolved, the hobo disappeared, not only from the South Rail Yards but from American life in general. By the 1960s, all that remained of Bum’s Jungle were a few ramshackle cabins, falling apart from years of neglect.

Now, of course, even those few signs of the once thriving community are gone. But there is still a generation of Marquette residents who, as kids, remember their parents telling them: “Don’t go down near Bum’s Jungle!”

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