Cabooses I have known

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, February 25, 2021

You’d think I’d be over it by now, but I’m not. Every time I watch a freight train pass at a grade crossing, I feel a need to wave to the guys in the caboose. Back in the day, that’s just what you did, an instinct as basic as saying hello to someone on the sidewalk.

Except those guys are out of sight now, and so, for the most part, are all their cabooses. It’s been three decades since cabooses — or, if you prefer, hacks, or vans, or cabins — pretty much disappeared, and I still miss them. A train without a caboose, without a railroader waving from the cupola or the bay window, is like a baseball game without a 27th out. Something basic is missing.

This spring Kalmbach plans to release its Guide to North American Cabooses, by Carl Byron and Don Heimburger, a softcover, full-size compendium of caboose history and technology. I’ve had zero role in the project, so I’m eager to buy a copy and add it to my bookshelf. If it’s like all my other books in Kalmbach’s reference series, it will get a steady workout.

The announcement also has me thinking about some cabooses that played a role in my own life. To me, they’re all classics. Such as:

The squat cupolas on New York Central's standard caboose were necessitated by the system's tight clearances. Classic Trains collection
• New York Central’s so-called “standard” wooden, low-cupola series. These were the cabooses of my youth. Painted a dull boxcar red and discretely marked with the NYC black-and-white oval, they were everywhere to be seen when, as a five-year-old, I first moved to a Michigan Central town. Although as a kid I wouldn’t have put it this way, they looked jaunty with that “squashed” cupola, so configured for reasons of tight clearance round the system.

Many of the cabooses I saw were likely built in the early 1900s. At one point the railroad had as many as 2,000 of them, many inherited from predecessor roads and constructed at shops all over the NYC system: Lafayette, Ind.; Collinwood, near Cleveland; Oswego, N.Y.; and West Albany, N.Y.; to name a few. Incredibly, I discovered many of them were in service until 1966, when a union agreement obligated the railroad to go all-steel.

You could learn unexpected things in a caboose. I remember hiking out to the local yards at around age 10 or 11 and discovering a long line of NYC cabooses, likely headed for scrap. I tried getting into a few of them and eventually found one unlocked. Instead of finding a lot of railroad “atmosphere,” I saw that the walls — floor to ceiling — were papered with centerfold girls. That wouldn’t shock me now, but it did then.

Grand Trunk Western's offset-cupola cabooses were a fixture on the road's main line past Michigan State University. Jeff Mast
• Grand Trunk Western’s off-set cupola cabooses: I couldn’t write this little tribute without mentioning the cabooses that often animated my three years at Michigan State University. The GTW main line runs through the southern section of MSU’s huge campus, and boasted one of Michigan’s great train-watching locations — the crossing of the Chesapeake & Ohio at the junction called Trowbridge.

When I was there in the early 1970s, the Tuesday night operator at Trowbridge welcomed us into the homey little tower, where we spent hours listening to the radio chatter, ordering pizza, and, occasionally stringing up orders for C&O trains. I liked the frequent waves we got from crews aboard the Trunk’s handsome cabooses. They were virtually identical to other International versions on a bunch of other railroads, but the Trunk’s were special in their bright red paint and the “GT” version of CN’s sinuous logo. Best of all, GTW ran hot across the Trowbridge diamonds. Look fast, lest you miss a friendly wave from the crew.

Rock Island 17772, a converted boxcar owned by the late Philip R. Hastings, served as a bunkhouse at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum. Jeffrey Lentz
• Rock Island caboose No. 17772: The odds I’d ever spend a few nights in an ancient wooden Rock Island caboose were a million to one — until I met Philip R. Hastings, or “Doc,” as many of his friends called him. The great photographer owned the 17772 at the time and kept it at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom, Wis., where he was a longtime officer.

Phil and I met each other in 1974, and once I got over being star-struck we became friends. More to the point, Hastings was pals with the late Tom O’Brien, a fellow Iowan who was a major force at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum. Tom and I had been hanging out for years, and when it came time to attend MCRM’s annual Snow Train steam celebration, Tom invited me to bunk in Phil’s caboose, along with mutual friend Drake Hokanson. 

The car was an unusual gem, one of 200 rebuilt in 1938–1944 from boxcars into a passenger/baggage configuration for use on mixed trains. The caboose had three sections: a passenger compartment with pullout seats for 8, and overhead bunks; a baggage room with sliding doors; and a crew section with desk, locker, and cupola. It started out life as a boxcar when built decades earlier by the Bettendorf Company. As a caboose, it remained in service into the early 1960s. Hastings bought it in 1967 and arranged to move it to North Freedom from Albert Lea, Minn. It remains in the MCRM collection. 

That caboose never came close to turning a wheel when I was aboard, but a few frigid nights in that spacious cabin huddled by the oil stove with Tom and Drake made me feel like a character in a Harry Bedwell story. Drake recalls: “I remember sitting in the cupola one winter night with you and Tom, possibly others, in the dark under the cold Wisconsin stars, talking into the wee hours about the wonder of the railroad, about steam, about preservation. I also remember the flies on the windowsills coming back to life as the place warmed.”

Seaboard System 05721 brings up the rear of the hot Orange Blossom Special intermodal train in 1984. John B. Corns
• Seaboard System No. 05721: My caboose-riding résumé is pretty thin, but my most memorable trip was a doozy, 1,059 miles aboard a run-of-the-mill steel caboose all the way from what was Seaboard System’s Taft Yard in Orlando to Chessie System’s Wilsmere Yard in Delaware. I was traveling with my buddy, photographer John B. Corns, and we were working on a story about SBD’s Orange Blossom Special, its daily hotshot perishables train from Florida to the Northeast. The whole point was the caboose: it was perhaps the last long-distance, regularly assigned caboose run in the U.S. The only reason 05721 was on the train was because the state of Virginia still required one. The railroad figured it was easier to haul the damn thing all the way rather than switch it on and off. 

So, there we were, John and I, committed to riding for more than 24 hours in the Spartan accommodations of an International Car extended-vision caboose. It’s not necessarily a trip I’d recommend — we took nothing but junk food, and not enough of it, and the ride was rough.

But I wouldn’t exchange that trip for anything. I’ll never forget the miles we put behind us, sitting up in that warm cupola, looking ahead at the signals changing as we bounced through the darkness of South Carolina’s Pee Dee Swamp. I’m sad to report our trusty caboose didn’t last long after that. Built in 1963, it was already 21 years old when we rode it. Seaboard System successor CSX retired the car in 1988 and scrapped it in 1989.

There were plenty of other cabooses I’ve admired. You can’t beat the classic center-cupola hacks associated with Baltimore & Ohio, Pere Marquette, the Reading Company, and countless other railroads (not to mention Lionel). The ribbed, all-welded cabooses of the Milwaukee Road had high style. And does anything say “The West” better than Santa Fe’s brilliant red offset-cupola cars, emblazoned with the railroad’s huge circle and cross?

But these four are the ones that meant the most to me. I’m guessing you have nominees of your own. I’d love to hear about them below in the Comments section.

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