The Classic Caboose: An American Legend

Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

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. 

The old art of grabbing train orders is demonstrated here by an Illinois Central Gulf crewman on caboose #199456 as part of a northbound freight crossing the Norfolk & Western diamond at Tolono, Illinois on August 4, 1982. Jack Kuiphoff photo.

The 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 caboose). 

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. 

Southern Railway caboose X-463 brings up the tail end of a train passing through Boylan Junction in Raleigh, North Carolina on December 21, 1984. Warren Calloway photo.

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.

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. 

The operator at White Heath, Illinois hands orders to the conductor of a passing Illinois Central freight bound for nearby Champaign on May 6, 1966. Roger Puta photo.

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. 

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. 

While 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. 

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