For more than a century the railroad caboose was a fixture on the end of freight trains. The real purpose of the caboose was to provide a sheltered vantage point from which trainmen could watch the cars ahead, sleep, cook and eat their meals, and do their paperwork. It served as the working headquarters of the freight conductor and his rear brakeman.
The caboose has had more names than any other piece of railroad equipment - even more than the locomotive. Railroaders called it by numerous names: cabin car, crummy, shack, waycar, bobber, brainbox, shanty, hack, just to name a few. Though we have come to know the term 'caboose' as a railroad car, its original meaning is defined in Webster's New International Dictionary as a nautical term meaning "a house on deck where the cooking was done; a galley."
The first caboose on record was rather primitive, being merely the last boxcar on a passenger-freight train on the old Auburn & Syracuse line. From this car in the 1840's, conductor Nat Williams ran his train. In it he kept flags, lanterns, chains, tools, etc. He wrote his reports while seated on a wooden box, using an up-ended barrel as a desk, and ate his meals in the same fashion. In effect, Nat's car was a caboose.
The cupola on top, according to railroad legend, appeared during the Civil War, around the time of the Battle of Gettysburg. The origin of the cupola gives credit to T. B. Watson, a Chicago & North Western freight conductor. When Watson's flat topped caboose was temporarily assigned to a work-train, he had to use an old boxcar in its place. This car had a large hole in the roof and Watson piled boxes up to the hole and sat with his head and shoulders protruding out above the roof. This position gave him an excellent view of his train. Watson thought that if all waycars had this feature, the trainmen's work would be easier.
Arriving at his destination he suggested to the master mechanic that "crow's nests" be included in the two new waycars then being built at the North Western shops. The official agreed, the cars were constructed that way, and the C&NW may have been the first railroad to use cabooses with cupolas.
The typical caboose featured a cupola or bay windows by which to view the train. Seats, a heating and cooking stove, bunks for crew members, lockers, closets and the conductor's desk were also present as were other necessary supplies. Though arrangements varied, all cabooses essentially contained the same equipment.
Though we think of cabooses as being red in color, they have actually been painted almost every color under the sun. In the old days, many conductors who were assigned a waycar, could paint and decorate them any way they chose - within reason of course. Each had its own design style ranging from the elaborate to the very simple.
As railroads changed, the caboose changed as well. With the implementation of the airbrake, the rear brakeman was able to apply rear braking from his seat, without leaving the caboose. Steel replaced the old wood bodies and many railroads replaced the cupola with bay windows on the sides. Short-wave radio-telephone systems were also installed to keep in contact with the locomotive.
After many years, it became evident that new technology would slowly diminish the need for cabooses. Automatic block signals eliminated the need for a flagman. Switchmen were replaced by dispatcher-operated power switches. And the primary function of the caboose as an observation platform was no longer needed as new trackside equipment could easily spot safety defects. And so, the watchful brakeman was gone, too. The era of the caboose had expired.
The caboose is now a thing of the past - a victim of modern technology. The "little red caboose" has been replaced by an EOT (end of train device), an electronic box which monitors the train from the last car. The railroads say that technology is safer - and cheaper - than cabooses and their crews. Old timers say that nothing can safely replace the eyes and ears of the dedicated men who rode the caboose.