"The Caboose" - by Peter Vaira

"There is nothing like the caboose. It captures the tradition and romance of railroading." Those are words Brian Solomon and John Gruber, authors of Caboose, published by MBI Publishing Company, from which a great many of the facts related in this article were taken.

The history of the origin of the caboose is somewhat vague. There is a popular tale that Nate Williams, a conductor of the Auburn & Syracuse Railroad in New York in the 1830's, needed a place on his freight trains to do paperwork. The conductor also needed room to keep lanterns, lantern oil, flags and other equipment for displays for delays, and signaling, which were common at the time before the use of the telegraph in railroad operations. He requisitioned an old box car to serve as his office and equipment car. This was supposedly the start of the caboose. By the 1850's trains needed room to carry extra brakemen, as there were no airbrakes, and the brakemen needed to be located somewhere on the moving train to climb from car to car setting and releasing brakes. This was in addition to having a place for the conductor to do his paperwork. There was hardly any room for such persons in the cab of the locomotive. Thus the caboose was a necessity.

The caboose with a cupola is said to have originated on the Chicago & North Western. T. B. Watson, a conductor, was taken off his regular route and as a result lost his regular caboose. On the new route all that was available was an old boxcar. Watson discovered that there was a hole in the roof of the boxcar. He found a way to poke his head through the opening, and was amazed at the view this gave him of the entire train. At that time the conductor needed to watch the moving train for defects, hot boxes, dragging equipment and loose lading. It is said that Watson went to the car shop and requested that they convert the regular cabooses to include extended openings for the conductors to view the trains. Thus the cupolas were gradually built to what that appendage became.

The early cabooses were four-wheelers, known as "bobbers" because of their rough bouncing ride. Because of lesser cost, the four-wheelers were continually built for many years. There are many preserved four-wheelers in museums and siding displays in public parks. The Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden has several well-preserved, narrow-gauge four-wheelers. There is a special four-wheeler" fro the Albany & Susquehanna on display in Oneonta, New York. It is Number 10, and was the meeting place of trainmen in 1883  when a union was formed which became the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen.

As freight cars became taller, it became more difficult to build cabooses high enough for good view from a cupola, especially where there were low clearances. Trainmen complained that the cupolas became overheated. Thus emerged the "side bay" caboose. The Baltimore & Ohio was a pioneer in the construction of the side-bay caboose, with some models appearing as early as 1929. The B&O built 125 between 1941 and 1945. The New York Central acquired hundreds of them after World War II.

Eventually special needs caused the introduction of the steel caboose. Steel cabooses had the advantage of the strength to withstand a helper engine behind for heavy grades, with the ease of uncoupling at the top of the grade, permitting the regular manifest to continue with little delay. There were many instances of wooden cabooses being crushed by power helper engines.

The transfer caboose is a very utilitarian car for short distance switching and yard work. These are usually a small shed with windows, which provided weather protection, a place for eating lunch, or operation breaks, situated on a type of flat car. These are used for short distance trains of mixed freight cars for pick up and drop off on industrial sidings. They are also found in large assembly yards for convenience of a crew serving a switch engine. As there is a lot of switching, the transfer cabooses have large open spaces on each end for brakemen who must get on and off frequently.

Changes in technology and railroad procedures, and the roles of the men riding the caboose gradually made them obsolete. In the 1980's most railroads withdrew cabooses from regular service; but the caboose is still used in certain operations. There is a need for a caboose on the end of certain very long freight trains or local freight trains with complicated switching assignments. Work trains require them where there is a need for a number of workmen with different skills, such as rail laying trains of trains with specialized rail maintenance assignments. The Department of Defense requires cabooses on trains carrying hazardous materials, where emergency maintenance personnel are necessary. Hopefully the caboose will remain in limited operation; railroading will not be the same without it.

The book, Caboose, IS available III hardback from Amazon for $10.00.

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by Peter Vaira


[added 11/24/16]