Speak with any railfan old enough to remember the 1980s, and you will likely hear several laments. It’s such a shame, you’ll hear, that those old “Spartan” cab locomotives aren’t on the main line anymore. It really is too bad that Amtrak stopped running a certain service, or that the such-and-such branch line was ripped out. The most universal, though, will almost certainly come after a freight train passes, its rear marked by a small box mounted atop the last car’s coupler, possibly with a flashing red light. This is known by many names, from “FRED” (for “flashing rear-end device”) to “EOT” (“end-of-train” device), but what your companion will no doubt complain about is that it isn’t a caboose.
Except for the steam locomotive, is there any more iconic piece of railroad equipment than the caboose? From the 19th century to the 1980s, they were found at the end of almost every freight train on almost every line, as necessary to the visual image of the railway as were the rails and ties themselves. If you saw a train go by, and no caboose sat at its end, your first reaction would probably be alarm, for it was quite possible that the train had broken in two and left its tail end behind somewhere! Even today, almost a generation after their passing from daily use, the caboose remains an indelible part of American pop culture.
The most obvious function of the caboose was as a marker, or a carrier for such. Typically painted bright colors, and often flying flags or bearing red lamps, the caboose helped to physically denote the end of the train. Inside, seats, benches, and a stove indicate a second function, that of shelter from the elements for railway employees. In the days when train crews counted two, three, or more men in addition to the engineer, this extra space was essential to getting traffic over the road. Indeed, before air brakes, a train might have had several brakemen whose job it was to walk the roofwalks and set hand brakes in response to whistle signals from the engineer; the caboose’s role in carting about these workers earned it the nickname of “brake van” in Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth countries.
What is less often understood is how the caboose is a testament to the amount of paperwork that railroaders were once required to do. The caboose was also a mobile office, a place for the conductor to sort out business on the move. Before the days of Centralized Traffic Control and radio dispatch, a typical train would be laden with paper, from clearance forms to train orders, from switch lists to special track bulletins, from car waybills to general orders. A desk, a bulletin board, a lamp, and a pen were as much a part of the work as were thick-soled boots, good leather gloves, and a signal lantern.
There still is paperwork involved in railroading today, of course, but much of it has been reduced. Track warrants and other forms of authority have simplified control and reduced paper. Waybills are rarely handled by a crew anymore, and radio has replaced much of the old paper message and order system. Meanwhile, most of the day-to-day orders and so on are folded and placed into a plastic sheet protector and can fit into a hip pocket, or even worse, point-and-clicked on a company-issued electronic tablet.
When they were retired en masse in the 1980s, thousands of cabooses were snapped up by museums and private owners. While it’s rare to find one on the main lines today, you can still enjoy these tributes to the original mobile office at museums around the country, a testament to their iconic status to both railroaders and rail enthusiasts.
—Consulting Editor ALEXANDER BENJAMIN CRAGHEAD is a transportation historian, photographer, artist, and author.