DULUTH, Ga.: The caboose is arguably the most recognizable railroad car in America. However, many younger Americans have never seen one operating on the rails.
Cabooses probably date to the 1830s, but the precise details of their history are uncertain. According to one theory, Auburn and Syracuse Railroad Conductor “Uncle Nat” Williams set up an office in an empty boxcar at the end of a freight train. He used a wood box for a chair and a barrel for a desk where he completed his paperwork.
Once common in North American trains of all lengths, a caboose is – or was – a utility railroad car coupled onto the end of a freight train. The name given to the car may derive from the Dutch word “kombuis,” which initially referred to a “galley” or kitchen on a ship. From its early, apparently ad lib beginning, it evolved into a custom car serving as a home away from home for members of the freight train crew.
Since the car first appeared on the railroad scene, extra crew members beside the standard engineers and firemen were vital. In the days before automatic track switching equipment existed, they got off the caboose to perform key manual tasks. The most important involved shifting and shunting tracks at railroad junctions.
In addition, they’d periodically inspect the freight train. They would look for evidence of cargo shifting or damage, equipment faults, and other problems including axles that could be overheating.
The caboose might also house a passenger conductor on freight trains that carried some passenger cars.
As freight trains evolved and modernized, the caboose and its crew housed even more functions. A 1985 New York Times story notes
“the caboose has been the post for those monitoring the air pressure in braking systems, watching for dragging equipment, looking out for hazardous load shifts and, most important, checking car axles for overheated bearings that can lead to derailments”
According to estimates, there were approximately 2,700 cabooses in use on American railroads in 1870. By 1900, there were more than 17,600 on the rails.
But where have they all gone today?
“Cabooses were used on every freight train until the 1980s, when safety laws requiring the presence of cabooses and full crews were relaxed. Developments in monitoring and safety technology such as lineside defect detectors and end-of-train devices resulted in crew reductions and the phasing out of caboose cars. Nowadays, they are generally only used on rail maintenance or hazardous materials trains, or on heritage and tourist railroads.”
Celebrate the caboose at the Southeastern Railway Museum
The Southeastern Railway Museum in Duluth, Georgia, will celebrate the caboose during Caboose Days on April 7-8. The two-day, family-friendly event features live music, crafts and rides on vintage cabooses.
During the event, Museum Librarian Steve Storey and Assistant Librarian Lloyd Neal will sign copies of their new book, “When Atlanta Took the Train,” which they co-authored with David H. Steinberg. Arcadia Publishing published this 144-page book in February. The book chronicles passenger railroad transportation in Atlanta from the 1830s to its mid-20th century zenith.
Storey and Neal will give a pair of presentations about Atlanta’s railroad history. Time: 12 p.m. on Saturday, April 7, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 8.