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 forĀ  “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)