Perhaps no other symbol of American railroading has defined the industry
as the simple caboose. An endearing piece of equipment, even
to the general public, the
car was an all too common sight that many folks anticipated watching
pass as the end of the train went by. First reportedly developed just a
few decades after the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was chartered the
caboose became a vital part of a freight train for over a century with
several different types and versions of the car
developed during that time mostly in regards to how a particular railroad designed their particular type for everyday use (such as the Pennsylvania, Reading, B&O, and others). While still in limited use today the
beloved caboose has mostly went extinct as it rapidly disappeared
beginning in the 1980s.
Soo Line caboose #99061 reflects within the pool of a mud-puddle at the yard in Houghton, Michigan during March of 1975. While it is late winter the snow in this region is still quite heavy.
origins of the railroad caboose appear to date back to the 1840s when
Nat Williams, a conductor of the Auburn & Syracuse Railroad (a later
affiliate of the New York Central) became fed up with cramped and uncomfortable quarters to do paperwork (a common job
of the conductor, whose responsibility is general oversight and control
of a train, passenger or freight), which was usually done in either a
free space of a passenger car or combine/baggage car. To fix this
problem, Williams found an unused boxcar and using a simple box and
barrel, as a seat and desk, set up shop in the car to do his duties. Not only did he find out he had plenty of room to work
but also figured that he could use the unused space to store tools
(flags, lanterns, spare parts, etc.) and other essentials to have on
board whenever needed (such things become commonly stored on the
Since non-locomotive personnel on freight trains did not have
assigned quarters (space in the locomotive in those days was at a
premium unlike today) so the “conductor’s car,” as it was originally
called, quickly caught on across the industry. At some point, and it is
not known exactly when, the term caboose began to be applied as the
car’s name. In any event, at first these cars looked like short,
stubby boxcars (or were boxcars) called bobbers, with just two axles and
no truck assembly.
Eventually, however, railroads began to understand the car’s potential
and through the years upgrades and additions began to appear.
Perhaps the most striking feature ever applied to the railroad
caboose was its cupola. According to the story, conductor T.B. Watson
of the Chicago & North Western in the 1860s reportedly used a hole
in a boxcar’s roof (which he was using as a caboose) to get a better
vantage point of the train ahead. It is said that Watson was amazed by
the view afforded from the position being able to not only see the train
ahead but also from all sides, and to the rear as well. He apparently
convinced C&NW shop forces to construct a type of open observation
box onto an existing singe-level caboose with windows all around where
one could sit and view their surroundings. The rest, as they say, is
history and the common cupola was born.
Cupolas were not the only upgrades added to the railroad caboose,
however. Other features included extended porches on both ends of the car with doors to match that offered increase flexibility and movement around the car (later added to the porches were ladders to access the roof). Discovering that crewmen staying in the caboose, with the cupola,
could better watch the rear of the train for both possible derailments
as well as the unfortunate event of a train coming up from behind, a
rear brakeman was assigned to the car (in the early days, before automatic air brakes, he was also used as extra help to apply
a car’s individual braking system, working from the back towards the
front while the head brakeman worked from the front towards the back,
all from the cars’ rooftops), as well as a flagman.
Santa Fe off-center cupola caboose #999139 brings up the rear of a pig train at McCook, Illinois on June 16, 1986.
By the late 19th century the railroad caboose was a staple on the rear
of freight trains and its basic shape and design, for the most part, was
in place. By the early 20th century the car was built of the much
stronger material, steel, in place of wood. In any event, for the rest
of its years new designs and upgrades added to the car were mostly
unseen (like the addition of steel although interestingly wood or
partial-wood cabooses remained in service throughout the industry until
the 1970s when federal laws overseeing interstate commerce began banning
the interchange of wood-constructed cars). These included things like
better crew quarters for, along with the conductor, the brakeman and
flagman (whose primary job, before the days of two-way radio, was to watch
the rear of the train for other trains approaching from the rear).
Some even received air-conditioning in later years although this tended
to be a luxury.
Aside from the cupola, the other distinguishing feature added
to the railroad caboose came in the late 1930s when protrusions along
the car’s side, which began to appear first on the Baltimore & Ohio
and Milwaukee Road. Known as the bay-window these cars were custom
built on the B&O and Milwaukee Road and were not only cheaper but
also in some respects offered better vantage points and were safer when
slack action (the term used to describe the loose connections between
couplers that was pulled tight upon a train beginning to move) could
sometimes violently toss an unwary crewmen sitting in the cupola to the
floor of the car, sometimes nearly ten feet below. The other advantage
bay-window cabooses offered were low clearances, particularly a problem
on eastern railroads, which had many tunnels.
A classic Great Northern wooden caboose has made it into the Burlington Northern era as it trails a freight traveling along the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range's main line near Iron Junction, Minnesota during August of 1976.
While almost all railroads built, at least, a few of their own
designs, most also purchased cabooses directly from freight car
manufacturers, which by the 20th century included them in their catalogs
on an annual basis. Of these, the International
Car Company was the most well known and by the peak of caboose use was
widely regarded as the industry leader. Interestingly, however, the
railroad caboose was perhaps the only car-type that never had a truly
uniform, utopian design. Yes, the cupola and bay-window became standard
features of the caboose. However, sometimes the cupola was centered,
off-centered, or placed to one end of the car altogether to better
utilize space. Some railroads also developed their own cupola or
bay-window designs. Perhaps the last design for visibility was the
extended vision cupola, or EVC, which added a protruding window to the
cupola, similar to a bay-window, to give a crewman the best of both
worlds (cupola and bay-window).
Likely the very last specific railroad caboose-type ever
developed was the transfer caboose. Used primarily on terminal or
transfer railroads (usually found in big cities where many cars or
entire trains are transferred between many different railroads) this
type of caboose was used basically over short distances that did not
cover more than a few dozen miles and the trip only lasted a few hours,
at most. Because of this the car carried the bare essentials
with large open porches to either end and a scaled-down “shack”
structure in the middle for protection from the elements (none of the
essentials found on over-the-road cabooses, like bunks and refrigerators, where workdays on the car lasted for 12-14 hours were available on transfer cabooses).
You might be wondering, “Why in the heck were cabooses almost
always painted red?” Well, the simple answer is that red was a warning
color; bright, noticeable and easy to see from afar marking the end of a
train for approaching trains from the rear. Sometimes, the car’s ends
were painted a bright yellow for even better visibility. In later
years, however, as technology improved and two-way radio and better
signaling helped to protect trains, particularly the rear, bright colors
became less of a priority. For instance, many railroads began painting
their cabooses in their respective liveries, which among other things
added color, uniqueness, and interest to freight trains.
Southern Pacific bay-window caboose #4236 and SD45T-2 #9213 assisting in helper service are at the end of a freight grinding up grade along Donner Pass near Emigrant Gap, California during March of 1986.
Also, the railroad caboose had dozens of different names over its
lifetime with different railroads calling it by a different name. On
the Pennsylvania Railroad the car was known as "cabins", the B&O's
homebuilt bay-window cabooses were often referred to as "wagontops"
(like homemade boxcars of the same design the B&O built) or
generally as "cabeese," and the "Northeastern" design which was
originally developed by the Reading Railroad that was later used by
several Northeastern railroads (it featured a slanted cupola design with
two windows to each side of both the cupola and the car itself). Other
names given to the car over the years included crummy, bobber, brain
box, monkey box and the intelligence department.
By the 1980s the railroad caboose was on the decline. New
technologies were making the car, and most of its occupants (save for
the conductor), obsolete. Computers made long hours of paperwork on
board trains almost redundant. Likewise, with the development of the
two-way radio, EOTs (End-Of-Train devices, also known as FREDs, Flashing
Rear-End Devices, which were first developed by the Florida East Coast
Railway in 1969; monitored, among other things, a train’s air pressure
for its brakes) and automatic hotbox detectors (which detected hotboxes
without the need of human eyes to do such) made for brakeman and flagman
virtually unneeded. To make matters worse, the caboose served no
profitable value for railroads. Labeled “non-revenue” equipment they
earned nothing and were merely a cost of doing business.
Because of this, it was clear even to the unions that the
railroad caboose was out-dated and in 1982 the United Transportation
Union (UTU) and most railroads reached an agreement to begin phasing out
the car from active service. For instance, by the 1980s a new caboose
could cost as much as $80,000 and $1,300 per train movement.
Thanks to Butch Rausch for help with the information on this page.
Six Chessie center-cupola cabooses all still in great condition await their next assignments (likely coal trains) at the yard in rural Elk Run Junction, West Virginia during March of 1982.
still in use today for minor jobs like transfer operations and back-up
moves (where it is safer for crewmen/women to be planted on a solid,
sturdy surface than dangling from the rear of a freight car) the
railroad caboose has been virtually relegated to the history books.
It’s charm and appealing legacy, however, among many railroaders and
especially the general public, will likely never be lost. If you would like to read a more detailed and in-depth history
and overview of the railroad caboose please consider picking up a copy
of Mike Schafer's Caboose. It's not quite 100 pages but gives an
excellent general history and overview on all of the common railroad
caboose (along with plenty of pictures, all in color) types and if you
are interested in learning more about them, or you are simply looking to
better understanding their history and development you should very much
enjoy Mr. Schafer’s book.