Some classic cabooses

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Chicago & Eastern Illinois 'Wabash-style' cars were the first cabooses I remember, bringing up the rear of long freights near Danville, Ill., where they were built. Wayne P. Ellis
An item on my Facebook timeline caught my eye last week: “Caboose Days 2018”, coming to the Southeastern Railway Museum on April 7-8 in Duluth, Ga., just outside of Atlanta.

The museum, home to magnificent Atlanta & West Point 4-6-2 No. 290, will be giving demonstration rides on two of the cabooses from its collection. One is a Southern Railway transfer caboose built around 1950. The other is Norfolk & Western 500837, built in 1944 by Pittsburgh & West Virginia and acquired by N&W via merger in 1964. With its blue-and-yellow paint scheme and centered cupola, it’s a classic.

“We’re quite proud of that caboose,” sys Duncan Carel, a weekday locomotive engineer at the museum. “Our visitors seem to really enjoy it. It’s a nice way to step back in time and see what it was like to be working on the railroad like it was in the 1940s.”

I hope the visitors who climb aboard the museum’s cabooses appreciate the experience. If so inspired, they might want to read what William F. Knapke and Freeman Hubbard had to say about them in The Railroad Caboose, a classic book published in 1968 by Golden West.

New York Central's famously tight clearances produced distinctive squat cupolas on the road's cabooses, some of which stayed on the job for 70 years or more. Si Herring
Knapke’s definition of the caboose is exuberant: “[It] was the original house trailer. It included the trainman’s living room, his office, workshop, kitchen, dining room, bedroom, den, toilet, balcony, and observation tower. It was his source of income and personal prestige. Also his means of travel. Join a railroad crew and see the world!”

I miss cabooses. I still wait for the end of every freight train to pass — a lingering habit from 40 or more years ago — and I’m still vaguely disappointed when all there is to see disappearing down the track is that blinking red Cyclops eye of the end-of-train device.

The first caboose I remember is the bright red “Wabash-style” version of the Chicago & Eastern Illinois, the railroad of my grandfather and great-grandfather, both of whom were telegraph operators. When I was five or six, family visits to the ancestral home of Alvin, Ill., just north of the shop town of Danville, meant hours standing by the grade crossing at Railroad Street, hoping for a wave from the crew of a speeding freight.

I was never disappointed when one of those rakish steel cabooses flew past. I say “rakish” because, in its wisdom, C&EI borrowed from its neighbor when it built a fleet of new all-steel cabooses in Danville in the late 1940s and early ’50s, right down to the semi-streamlined cupola that was a Wabash trademark. The C&EI had other classes of caboose, including center-cupola versions they called “C&O style” and some bay-window jobs. But nothing punctuated a fast freight like those with the angled, wind-splitting cupola.

International Car's extended-vision cars were perhaps the ultimate expression of the caboose. I spent 24 memorable hours aboard this one, SCL 05721, on the rear of Seaboard System's Orange Blossom Special perishables train in January 1984. John B. Corns
An entirely different kind of caboose captivated me a few years later, after we’d moved to New York Central territory in southwest Michigan. As modern as NYC was trying to be in the early 1960s — remember the “Road to the Future”? — the Central was still hanging on to an incredible number of wooden cabooses built in the late 19th century.

They came in various styles, often homebuilt in the shops of Central subsidiaries, and almost all of them with a distinct NYC characteristic: a shallow, squat cupola, with barely enough window space, it seemed, to view the train up ahead. Like the boiler-hugging domes of NYC’s later steam power, these cupolas were a concession to the Central’s famously tight clearances.

The first caboose I ever got inside was one of those boxcar-red waycars, as Central called them. I must have been about 12 when a friend and I hiked out to what was left of the NYC yards in town and found a long line of stored wooden cabooses. One was unlocked. We saw paperwork on the conductor’s desk, flares and flags stored in a box, lanterns hanging on the wall, but most of all we marveled at the Playboy centerfolds that papered nearly every square inch of the walls.

My favorite caboose might be the familiar, modern extended-vision version cranked out by the thousands in the 1960s by Ohio-based International Car Company. Boxy and unadorned, it was nevertheless the ultimate expression of the caboose, its slightly wider and taller cupola proving the theory of form following function in the era of tri-level auto racks and hi-cube boxcars.

In the manner of generations of freight conductors, Jack Crumley attends to paperwork aboard the Orange Blossom Special's caboose in early 1983. John B. Corns
I’m partial to the International caboose for another reason: I spent 24 hours aboard one in January 1984, joining photographer John B. Corns for an assignment to cover Seaboard System’s train 172, the Orange Blossom Special, an all-piggyback train perishables train that ran for a time between SBD’s Taft Yard in Orlando and Chessie System’s Wilsmere Yard in Wilmington, Del. This was late in the game for a caboose, but the state of Virginia still required one, so John and I took advantage of this last chance.

It was a memorable trip. Our highest-priority train made excellent time. The slack action occasionally shook us up. We subsisted on snack food and got almost no sleep. But the cabin was warm, the crews were accommodating, and the view of our train through the rain-streaked windows of the cupola was unforgettable. I recall at one point looking down onto the desk where our Jacksonville conductor Jack Crumley was doing his paperwork, and in that moment all seemed right with the world.

In fact, our night ride wasn’t unlike another taken by Trains Editor David P. Morgan decades before on the Cotton Belt, on a train powered by one of its 800-class Northerns. His description in the Foreword of The Railroad Caboose is DPM at his most evocative: “Thunder mixes with yellow flashes of lightning over Texas. The tiny glow of the cab light bulb in the Northern, 44 cars forward, comes back through the black of a rainy evening, and periodically the electrical storm lights up the entire weaving, rocking consist for a brief, vivid portrait of a redball schedule going home.”

Yes, I miss cabooses. These three were favorites, but to be honest I never met a caboose I didn’t like. B&O wagon tops, Pennsy N5-class cabin cars, Santa Fe’s Ce-1 waycars — they’re all worth celebrating. You must have favorites, too. I’d love to hear about them in the Comments below.

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