Visit the Historic Santa Fe Railroad Depot / Brownwood, Texas

Around the country, particularly in the American Southwest, there are some excellently restored Santa Fe Railroad stations. The Santa Fe station in Brownwood, Texas is a good example. In Brownwood, the old Santa Fe Depot was also a famed Harvey House. The depot and the Harvey House were in two separate buildings connected by a loggia.

old santa fe railroad depots

Old Santa Fe Depot, Brownwood, Texas

The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad was instrumental in opening up the American southwest to tourism. Transporting the first tourists to the Grand Canyon is just one example. Their old railroad depots generally had a particular architectural style and of course the famous Santa Fe logo and signage.

Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe Railroad

The Fred Harvey name is forever connected with the Santa Fe Railroad for it’s many Harvey House hotels and Fred Harvey Dining Rooms.

In the early days of the passenger railroad service dining cars were essentially non-existent. So that passengers could have meals, the train would stop about every 80-100 miles. Passenger trains, trying to stay on a schedule, would allow the passenger perhaps one hour to eat a meal. If he or she was lucky the eatery might be located at the station. If not, they would have to search around town for a place to eat. Finding a decent restaurant, ordering your meal, eating it, paying for it and making it back aboard the train all had to be accomplished generally in one hour. Hopefully the train passenger did indeed find a good restaurant and hopefully made it back to the train before it left the station.

santa fe railway locomotive

Santa Fe Locomotive

The above scenario is what Fred Harvey went out to fix. Harvey had traveled regularly on trains and knew all too well the comfort problems of passengers. He also had a background in the restaurant business going back to the time he emigrated from Scotland.

Harvey eventually worked out an arrangement with the railroad to build dining halls and hotels, typically connected to or very nearby the depot. Fred Harvey gained a reputation for fresh meals at reasonable prices. He was aided greatly by the railroad in being able to ship in fresh vegetables. Fred Harvey Dining Rooms were staffed with Harvey Girls who went through a thorough character interview before being hired. There are many who have said that Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe Railroad civilized the southwest. Thanks to Harvey’s partnership with the Sante Fe Railroad, the Fred Harvey Company grew into a very profitable chain of restaurants, hotels and other businesses serving the growing  tourist trade.

The Santa Fe Railroad Station and Harvey House in Brownwood, Texas

The Santa Fe Railroad depot in Brownwood was built in 1909. The Harvey House Dining Room and Hotel was built adjacent to it in 1911. The brown bricks used in it’s construction were brought in from Coffeeville, Kansas. It’s also important to note that the Santa Fe Railroad buildings in Brownwood remain one of the few still intact in Texas. The railroad initiated passenger service to Brownwood in 1885 and utilized two different wooden structures until the brick depot was constructed. The current structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

During the heyday of railroad travel, Brownwood saw as many as fifteen trains per day pass through town. Service continued all the way to 1964 with as many as four trains per day.

The Santa Fe Railroad station and Harvey House now serves as home to the city’s Visitor’s Center and Brownwood Store. The Brownwood Visitor’s Center will give you all the information you need to explore Brownwood, Texas and learn about the history of the Santa Fe Railroad as it relates to the city. The Brownwood Store is a great place to search for Texas themed gifts and books.

Be certain to tour the old Harvey House which will give you an idea of how people traveled during the golden age of railroads.

Today’s old Santa Fe Railroad station and Harvey House in Brownwood, Texas is also used for events and weddings.

See these additional Trips Into History and Western Trips articles on the links below…

The Old Harvey House in Slaton, Texas / Now a B&B

The Santa Fe Railroad and Santa Fe, NM

Historic Dining Cars of the Santa Fe Railroad

Some excellent reference material on the subject of the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad and Fred Harvey include…Appetite For America : Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West – One Meal at a Time by author Stephen Fried. Also, Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest by author Richard Melzer.

santa fe train depots in texas

Another view of the large train depot Harvey House building

Getting There

Brownwood, Texas is located about a two hour and fifty minute drive west/southwest of Dallas and about a one hour and twenty minute drive southeast of Abilene, Texas . It is the county seat of Brown County.

The Santa Fe Railroad Station in Brownwood, Texas, is located on the block bounded by Washington Avenue on the north, Adams Street on the east, the Santa Fe main line on the south, and Depot Street on the west.

(Article and photos copyright 2015 Trips Into History)


A Trip Into Railroad History / San Angelo Texas

The possibility of a transcontinental railroad, one connecting both oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific, was discussed as far back in time prior to the treaty with Great Britain settling the Oregon question in 1846. Twenty-two years later the nation did indeed celebrate the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

railroad depot santa fe

Old Santa Fe Depot

The fact of the matter was that steam engine technology was advancing and a railroad line spanning that distance was a distinct possibility. In 1849 Eli Whitney published a booklet to promote his idea entitled Project for a Railroad to the Pacific.

San Angelo Texas

San Angelo, Texas, at first named San Angela, had it’s beginnings just after the end of the Civil War when Fort Concho was established in 1867 at the confluence of three rivers in West Central Texas. This was an active frontier military post primarily providing protection against Indian raids. At various times Fort Concho was home to mounted cavalry, infantry, and the famous Black Cavalry whose members were respectfully called “Buffalo Soldiers” by the Native Americans in the area.

locomotive exhibits

Old AT & SF locomotive exhibt

Trips Into History Visits San Angelo Texas Railroad Museum

Trips Into History had the opportunity to visit an excellent west Texas railroad museum in San Angelo.

As was the case with many old train depots, when passenger service to non mainline destinations declined, mostly due to the automobile, plans were made to eventually tear them down. They were not being used and they were a liability to the railroads. As an interesting side note, there actually was a stagecoach operating between San Angelo and Sonora, Texas as late as 1921.

In some cases, and San Angelo was one, local civic groups campaigned to save these historic train stations and turn them into either railroad museums, and/or museums and special event centers. The same was the case with many of the old Harvey Houses that were built all along the Santa Fe Railroad lines. Some were Harvey Houses providing overnight accommodations and others were simply Fred Harvey Dining Rooms.

old railroad passes

A 1912 train pass for a railroad company director, displayed at the San Angelo Railroad Museum

In the case of San Angelo, Texas, some people wanted to turn it into an art gallery while others wanted to divide it into office space to be rented.  Eventually the locals decided to develop the old railroad depot into a railroad museum which officially opened in 1996.

If your travels take you to Belen, New Mexico, just a short drive south of Albuquerque you’ll also find an old Santa Fe Railroad train depot turned into a fascinating railroad museum.

Built by the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railroad in 1909 San Angelo depot was one of a kind. For a small town in 1909 like San Angelo, with just over 6,500 residents, this was a very large structure and the second largest building in San Angelo at the time.

The KCM&O used the building for passenger service and as their Texas corporate headquarters up until they were purchased by the Santa Fe Railroad which moved from their smaller facilities on the North side of town in 1929.

The San Angelo museum’s official name is The Historic Orient/Santa Fe Depot, Inc. The museum does a terrific job explaining the formation and development of railroad lines through San Angelo and west Texas. See artifacts and photos covering 150 years of railroading in the West as well as exhibits relating to the railroad lines passing through San Angelo.

Model Railroad Displays

Model railroad enthusiasts will get to view model train exhibits established by the Model Railroad Club of the Concho Valley.  The club was founded in 1997, shortly after the museum was established. Model Railroad Club of the Concho Valley welcomes new members of any skill level.

The club exhibits model trains Z, N, HO, O and Ggauges for the San Angelo museum’s permanent displays. There is a new HO layout of the KCM&O as it heads West out of San Angelo and passes through Barnahart, Fort Stockton and Presidio before passing over the Mexican Border at Presidio.For more information regarding the Model Railroad Club of the Concho Valley see website…..

You may also enjoy the Trips Into History articles found on the links below…

Historic U.S. Train Depots

Railroads in Texas / The Frisco

Historic Dining Cars of the Santa Fe Railroad

model railroad exhibits texas

One of the model railroad exhibits

Visit the San Angelo Texas Railroad Museum

San Angelo, Texas is located in Tom Green County. The city is home to Goodfellow Air Force Base, Angelo State University, the historic Cactus Hotel, the fourth hotel built by Conrad Hilton, and historic Fort Concho. Fort Concho hosts various events throughout the year. For more information on the fort’s activities see webesite...

The city is located about 112 miles southeast of Midland…about 200 miles northwest of Austin…and about 225 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

References for this article and books we recommend include…..Early San Angelo by author Virginia Noelke. Also, Railroad Transportation In Texas (1909) by author Charles Shirley Potts.

(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)

Features artifacts from150 years of railroading along with photos of the railroad and opening of the West by railroads. – See more at:



Historic Dining Cars of the Santa Fe Railroad

In the course of thirty years or less since the first tracks were laid, dining cars appeared on the western frontier railroads.. Thirty years is not necessarily a short time span but the changes that occurred in the American West and it’s railroads during this period were absolutely astounding.

santa fe railroad dining car

Santa Fe Railroad's famous Cochiti Dining Car

The period from about 1850 and the end of the nineteenth century saw some of the most dramatic changes in railroad travel, particularly travel in the western United States. One of those changes was the introduction of the dining car. People today are still able to enjoy railroad dining whether on Amtrak cross country trains or scenic tourist railroads with their one day adventures.  It’s a way to experience a piece of American history from the days of great national expansion when the railroad meant everything for a town to grow and prosper.

The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Dining Cars

Fred Harvey and the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad were legendary for their top quality service. Fred Harvey was so successful in managing the AT & SF rail side eateries and hotels that the railroad asked him to put his magic to work on their planned dining cars. To Fred Harvey, this was not ideal. Harvey initially didn’t feel that the same level of quality could be served up on a moving train car.

santa fe railroad dining car kitchen

Santa Fe Railroad Cochiti Dining Car kitchen

Since the 1880’s, dining cars became standard offerings on cross country trains heading west from Chicago. The AT& SF relied on the string of Harvey Houses along it’s route. In fact, these Harvey Houses were strategically located to accommodate passengers during meal hours.

To put this in some perspective, railroads without the Fred Harvey eateries along their route put their passengers through quite an ordeal. At a stop, railroad passengers might have had up to one hour to find the nearest roadhouse to the train tracks and hope for the best. Unfortunately, the best sometimes wasn’t good. The fact that there was enormous room for improvement  is what gave Fred Harvey his early inspiration.

The Fred Harvey customers usually were aware of one trademark of the Harvey dining rooms. Harvey’s meals were served in sumptuous portions that provided a good value for the traveling public. All of a sudden railroad dining reached a new higher level. Top quality food and service and the AT& SF naturally scenic train routes were a winning combination.

santa fe railroad dining car china

AT & SF Railroad dining car china and place settings

Those wanting to get a hold of some of the old Harvey House recipes might look for the book, The Harvey House Cookbook by George H. Foster. The book includes vintage recipes from the various Harvey Houses and the AT & SF railway cars. The book includes over 200 recipes.

Pictured in this article is the 36 seat “Cochiti” dining car of the Achison Topeka& Santa Fe Railroad.

This rail car was a new streamlined stainless steel car that was part of the railroad’s famous “Super Chief” train that offered once a week service between Chicago Illinois and Los Angeles California.

This dining car and seven others were ordered by the railroad in 1936. All of the AT&SF cars were named after Native Indian tribes. The Cochiti was named after the Indian pueblo of Cochiti about thirty miles southwest of Santa Fe New Mexico. This is also a good destination to add to your New Mexico vacation planner.

santa fe railroad mimbres salt and pepper shaker

Mimbres designed salt and pepper shaker from Santa Fe Railroad. Exhibit at frisco Texas Heritage Museum

The Cochiti Dining Car On Display

The Cochiti dining car has been preserved and is on display at the famous California State Railroad Museum located in Old Town Sacramento California. When you explore the interior of this dining car you can view the kitchen area and all the tables have been set with china and silverware. This is one of the most authentic rail car displays you’ll come across. This particular dining car has been set to it’s mid 1940’s condition. If your travels take you to Sacramento California you’ll want to add a stop at Old Town and the California State Railroad Museum to your trip planner.

Railroad dining cars today are quite different than the earlier cars in basic design. The Cochiti dining car was a one level rail car where the kitchen area was on one end of the car with the dining tables occupying the remainder. You might have a kitchen area with bar stools and then the table beyond. On today’s Amtrak bi-level rail cars, you have the dining booths taking up most of the upper level with the kitchen area being on the lower level. Food is sent up via a dumbwaiter.

See the Trips Into History articles on the links below…

The Legendary Union Pacific Big Boy Locomotive

Historic Steam Locomotive Exhibits

Also, see our Western Trips article and visit to a restored Pullman Rail Car…

The Pullman Car and What It Did For Travel

at & sf railroad mimbres china

Mimbres design cup and saucer at and sf railroad dining car

View Santa Fe Railroad Dining Car Fine China

If your travels take you to the Dallas/Fort Worth Texas region you’ll find an excellent railroad museum with terrific exhibits in Frisco Texas, a northern suburb of Dallas.

The founding of Frisco Texas, it’s strong connection with the Misouiri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, the MKT, and life in an early frontier environment is all presented in fine detail at the Frisco Heritage Museum. You’ll also see a good collection of railroad dining car china including china from the Santa Fe Railroad. The original railroad china was made available to the public in two sales held in 1971.

Among their collections is china that was used on the Santa Fe Railroad’s “Super Chief ” dining cars. During railroad’s golden years, most railroads had their own distinctive designs used on everything from plates, cups, towels, playing cards and just about anything the passenger would regularly use. The Pullman cars which usually operated as a franchise managed by the Pullman Palace Car Company also had their names and logos on many items.

pullman car dinner plate

Original Pullman Car Dinner Plate

The Santa Fe Railroad adopted the southwest and Indian cultures as a major way the rest of the country would view their railroad. This was also included on the designs for their dining car china.

This type of china was used on AT & SF Railroad dining cars right up until passenger service was discontinued in 1971.The china featured in this article was produced exclusively for the AT & SF Railroad from 1936 to 1970 by the Onandaga Pottery Company. Today, authentic pieces like the ones displayed here are considered quite rare.

Original railroad dining car china is a popular artifact for collectors. Today, reproductions which claim the same high quality are offered by several companies. Collectors would want to verify production methods, etc before purchasing any reproduction china.

(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)

Texas Railroads and Historic U.S. Train Depots

When the American railroads were expanding during the latter part of the nineteenth century, Texas was in an ideal position. It was also growing rapidly and had plenty of available land. The last half of our article lists several historic train depots in Texas and the west that make excellent trip stops.

waxahachie texas katy depot

Waxahachie Texas train depot

Historic Texas Train Depots

When you research the golden days of railroading you’ll come to recognize that the state of Texas might of had the largest number of different railroads crossing it’s borders.

Texas railroads were numerous as were the train depots servicing them. Just as with the case of railroad towns all across the country, railroads came and went and many merged together. Fortunately, a good number of these historic train stations still exist in Texas as they do around the entire country.

The Katy Flyer

One of the historic railroads that came down from the north into Texas was the MKT, commonly referred to as the Katy. This was the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. In fact the Katy was the first railroad to come down into Texas from the north. Waxahachie Texas was on the main line of the Katy Flyer, a very popular named rail route which ran from St. Louis Missouri to Galveston Texas. The entire journey was made in thirty-seven hours.

mkt caboose

M-K-T Caboose

The Katy Flyer offered buffet sleeper cars for those passengers who chose to have meals aboard the train. The other option was to take meals at the MKT eateries located in some select stops such as Dallas. In some ways this mirrored the arrangement Fred Harvey had with the Santa Fe Railroad. The MKT Katy Flyer operated over this route for decades lasting all the way to 1961.

The Rock Island

The last of the Rock Island passenger trains to travel through Waxahachie and utilize the depot was the Sam Houston Zephyr. This was the BRI route connecting Fort Worth Texas and Houston which started service in 1936. The year 1936 also saw the large Texas Centennial celebrations throughout the state. Travel time on the new streamlined Sam Houston Zephyr was originally five hours with only four stops along the way, Waxahachie being one of them. Because of declining profits and competition from automobiles and airlines the Sam Houston Zephyr discontinued service in 1966.

gallup train depot interior

Gallup train depot interior

Texas Railroading Heading West

Anyone who has spent time researching the history of specific railroads will understand that mergers and acquisitions were commonplace. There were a great number of situations where very small lines were chartered to build rail lines over perhaps a few hundred miles. Over the years and in some cases in only a few years these lines merged with other larger railroads and these as well were acquired by even larger railroads. The southern branch of the Katy Railroad was primarily made up of several of these smaller lines being acquired.

Geographically, Texas, by reason of it’s size, was a crossroads for railroads for two main reasons. The state was growing steadily and passenger service was in demand to cities such as Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.

The second reason was that efforts were made from Texas to build a southern transcontinental route to either Los Angeles or San Diego. Such an effort was begun by the old Texas Pacific Railroad which ultimately ended with the Southern Pacific route from Los Angeles to New Orleans via El Paso, San Antonio and Houston.

train depot lamy new mexico

Lamy New Mexico train depot serving Santa Fe

As you travel around Texas you’ll have the opportunity to explore many historic train stations from railroad’s golden age.

While the Denver and Fort Worth Railroad put Amarillo on the map,other railroads were building into Amarillo Texas. Mergers and acquisitions took place and eventually the Chicago, Rock Island and Gulf Railroad was completed.

By 1910, a rail line was built from Amarillo west to the New Mexico border. The Rock Island would eventually run to Tucumcari New Mexico where it would join up with a Southern Pacific line and offer through service from Chicago to the west coast. This line would be in direct competition with the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad at that time.

santa fe railroad amarillo train depot

Old Santa Fe Railroad depot, Amarillo Texas

Eventually the transcontinental routes to the west coast comprised the southern route with the Southern Pacific Railroad at the helm, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe (Santa Fe Railroad) with it’s general southwest route from Chicago through New Mexico and northern Arizona into Los Angeles. The Union Pacific route from Chicago through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada ending in the San Francisco Bay area and the northern route which ran out of Minneapolis/St. Paul to Seattle and built by the Northern Pacific Railway.

Below are links to additional Trips Into History articles you may enjoy…

Railroads in Texas / The Frisco

A Tour of an Historic Pullman Car

The Famous U. P. Big Boy Steam Locomotive

Visit Luling Texas / Railroads, Oil and Watermelons

Surviving Historic Trail Depots Around the U.S.

Many of the old train depots today that have survived have been taken over by historical societies and cities and towns themselves. Some serve as excellent museums with artifacts and photos of the old passenger trains that visited. Some others are a combination of both, serving as museums and trains stations served by Amtrak.

tucson arizona train depot

Old Southern Pacific train station, Tucson Arizona

Below is just a small sample of historic train stations that have survived the decades since the days when passenger railroading was in it’s golden years. They make good additions to trip planners and most are filled with large historic collections.

Amarillo Texas

Amarillo was put on the map thanks to the railroad and ranching. The Texas Panhandle was a natural crossroads to the west and Amarillo benefited. Although there is no passenger service today and hasn’t been since 1970 the Amarillo rail yard is very busy with BNSF freight traffic. The old Santa Fe Amarillo train depot, built in 1910, and the surrounding six acres are now owned by the City of Amarillo. The train station is located just east of the downtown area.

Waxahachie Texas

The Waxahachie Texas old passenger train station built in 1886 served the Katy Railroad, also known as the M-K-T. The station is located just south of the town square and today. Waxahachie itself is known to many as the Gigerbread City because of the historic homes still standing built prior to 1900. The train depot closed when the Katy merged with the Union Pacific. Today Waxahachie sees a good amount of Union Pacific freight traffic. The old Katy depot is also across the street from the old Santa Fe Railroad depot which gives you a good comparison of the different architecture. Waxahachie Texas is located off Interstate 35 about 30 miles south of Dallas.

Temple Texas

The Temple Texas train depot is a museum and a working passenger train station. It is the third stop heading south from Fort Worth on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle which operates between Chicago and San Antonio Texas. Temple Texas is located along Interstate 35 about 35 miles south of Waco and about 65 miles north of Austin.

Lamy New Mexico

The Lamy New Mexico train depot serves Santa Fe which is about 15 miles to the north. The Lamy train depot was built in 1909 by the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. At one time the railroad ran a spur line to Santa Fe where passengers would connect to. Today the depot is an active Amtrak stop for the Southwest Chief which runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles. Lamy is an old historic spot outside Santa Fe and definitely worth a visit.

harvey house belen new mexico

Old Harvey House at Belen New Mexico

Flagstaff Arizona

Today’s Flagstaff Arizona train depot is an active passenger station for Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. The current depot was built in 1926 by the AT & SF. It is just to the south side of Flagstaff’s historic district and serves as a Visitor Center as well as a passenger station.

Tucson Arizona

Tucson Arizona was on the old route of the Southern Pacific Railroad which offered service from the west coast east to Louisiana. Today the depot, built in 1907, is active as a passenger stop for Amtrak’s Sunset Limited Service and the it’s Texas Eagle. The depot today has a restaurant, grocery and a fascinating museum with one of a kind railroad exhibits. Also an old Southern Pacific steam locomotive is on display outside as well as interesting sculptures. The depot is located to the east of the downtown area and quite close to a few historic hotels. If your trip takes you to Tucson it’s a worthwhile visit.

flagstaff arizona train depot

Train depot in Flagstaff Arizona

Belen New Mexico

Belen New Mexico has a beautifully restored Harvey House adjacent to the old train depot. The old Harvey House is now a fascinating museum featuring many artifacts and photos of both the AT & SF Railroad and the workings of a Harvey House eatery. There is also a three room model train exhibit which may be one of the largest. Belen is located along Interstate 25 about 35 miles south of Albuquerque.

Gallup New Mexico

The Gallup New Mexico train depot was constructed on what later became old Route 66. The depot building was built in 1918 as the El Navajo Hotel. This was one of the many Mary Colter AT & SF designed depots and hotels. This was also one of the Fred Harvey hotels serving the AT & SF Railroad. The hotel also adjoined a structure that was used as an area headquarters for the railroad. Renovations took place in 1996 and the Gallup Cultural Center opened inside the building at the same time. The depot is located at 201 East Highway 66.

(Article and photos copyright 2013 Trips Into History)



Tour Inside a Caboose

That rail car we used to see at the end of a freight train has quite a history. Much has been written about the great steam locomotives but there was that other rail car, often painted red but can also be seen in other colors, called the caboose.

The caboose as we know it is really a part of North American railroads and were not seen much at all in other countries.

mkt caboose

MKT Caboose 215

The caboose was the only car on a freight train that had a kitchen and sleeping accommodations for the crew as well as storage space and office facilities. In fact, at one time Federal law mandated that every freight train have a caboose at the rear for safety. The caboose would typically have a red light at it’s rear signifying the end of the train. The early caboose typically carried a conductor, brakeman and flagman.

At one time a caboose was, like other rail cars, made of wood. When steel was used for rail car construction the caboose was the last car to be converted to the steel.

Where did it’s name originate from? When was a caboose first used on a train? Why don’t we still use them today?

caboose conductor desk

Caboose conductor's desk

There are more than one story of how the caboose was named a caboose. One theory has to do with sailors building wooden boxes around fires on deck to keep warm. The Dutch called such structures “kabuis“. Other languages had other terms. The German’s called the structure a “kabuse“. There were different terms used for these rail cars even in the U.S. In the east what we refer to as the caboose was called a “way car” or a “brakeman’s cab“, a “crew car” or even a “shanty“. It appears that only in the western U.S. was the term “caboose” used almost exclusively. By the simple spelling of the word “caboose” it’s fairly assumed that the word was a derived from the Europeans.

What we call a caboose, the rail car with a cupola on the top, actually looked very different in the beginning. Sometimes they were simply redesigned box cars. Others were flat cars with a shanty in the middle and hand rails on either end.These were the first type of caboose used during the early 1800’s.

caboose cupola seat

Caboose Cupola seat and phone

The Cupola

The standard caboose in America, the one we most commonly refer to, has a cupola in the middle of the car’s roof. One source gives the credit for the building of the first cupola to a conductor on the Chicago & North Western during the 1860’s. Some sources however state that the cupola didn’t come until 1898. Nevertheless, the story about the 1860’s conductor was that he would need to stick his head through a hole in the caboose roof to view the train. He thought of the cupola design at the same time he was sticking his head through the roof a crude caboose while propped up by boxes.

The cupola offered a perch for observation. In fact it offered a 360 degree vista. History tells us that this conductor was able to convince the railroad’s shop to construct an enclosed structure that would be permanent. Thus the cupola became fairly standard from that point on. The cupola made it possible for the train’s conductor to see over the roofs of all the freight cars all the way forward to the locomotive.In essence the view from the caboose made it possible to monitor the freight cars as the trains were becoming longer and longer.

inside caboose

Caboose cooking stove

Actually, there was some difference of opinion as to exactly where the cupola should be located. Some preferred it in the middle, some near the rear of the roof and others near the front. As a result you might come across a vintage caboose that has the cupola not exactly in the middle. Don’t be surprised to see “bay window caboose’s“. These are rail cars with protruding structures on the side which also offer good observation of the entire train.

The Last Days of the Caboose

During the 1920’s it was estimated that over 34,000 caboose’s were running over America’s railroads. The trend however was going down in as much that by 1970 only about 14,000 were being used.

The caboose was the victim of simple labor cost cutting on Class 1 rail lines. During the heyday of the caboose a freight train crew typically had five crewmen. This would consist of three in the locomotive and two in the caboose. Today, typically on mainline freight trains there are two in the locomotive and at some times maybe three.

katy railorad caboose

MKT Caboose entrance

Today, technology has implemented wayside inspection which checks for things like hot wheels, bearing problems, brake line pressure, movement of the last car and shifting loads.

This is all done electronically and is sent via radio over the mainline channel which is monitored by the engineer. A flashing device and camera on the freight train’s rear end performs the same service that two crewmen might have performed decades earlier. The device at the train’s rear is referred to as FRED. This stands for  “flashing rear end device” and is attached to the last car’s rear coupler and to the trains air brake system.

The railroads were successful in eliminating the caboose law by demonstrating that technological advancements could perform the same service as a caboose crew.

See additional Trips Into History articles on the links below…

The Legendary Union Pacific Big Boy Locomotive

Three Historic Train Rides

The Santa Fe Railroad and Santa Fe

ennis texas railroad museum

Ennis Railroad and Cultural Museum

The Caboose 215

The interior caboose photos featured in this article are from the old MKT 215. This was a caboose of the old Katy Railroad and was rebuilt from Katy’s caboose number 12. This rebuilt caboose had an extended vision cupola and a new window configuration. This was the last caboose rebuilt by the Katy in their Kansas shop.

Caboose construction however did continue right up until the early 1980’s. By the 1990’s the caboose turned into a colorful and historic part of American railroading which was eliminated by FRED. What caboose’s a railroad might employ today are largely seen around rail yards as general purpose cars.

The MKT 215 caboose featured in this article is on permanent display in Ennis Texas outside the Ennis Railroad and Cultural Museum. Ennis Texas is located about 35 miles south/southeast of Dallas along Interstate 45.

For railroad enthusiasts who happen to be traveling in beautiful Sonoma County California, there is an old wood North Pacific Coast Railroad caboose on permanent display in Duncan Mills California. Duncan Mills is a small settlement just in from the Pacific Ocean coastline on CA Rte 116 about a 78 mile drive north of San Francisco and a 25 mile drive west of Santa Rosa.

(Article and photos copyright 2013 Trips Into History)