BRINGING UP THE REAR — If your 40th birthday is behind you, then you probably remember waving to caboose crews as a child. What a neat job we all thought that the Florida railroad men had, just rolling along up in the caboose cupola and waving back at kids. Actually, of course, there was a lot more to their work than just that.
A caboose was a railroad car that brought up the rear of a train. Whatever the nickname for a caboose — “van,” “crib,” “palace,” “shack,” “crumb box,” or even “loony bin” and “monkey wagon”* — this railroad car used to serve several purposes:
- A caboose acted primarily as a safety device. If a train’s regular brake system failed, instruments in the caboose allowed a conductor or brakeman to still stop the train.
- The cupola up on the caboose operated as a “watch tower,” permitting the railroad crew to keep an eye out for unsafe conditions. They looked behind for upcoming trains, and they peered ahead for signs of trouble along the track. As the train rounded curves at night, moreover, the men could spot brake shoes that were stuck and glowed red hot. They could prevent a serious fire hazard, especially when railroad cars were made of wood. In daylight, employees kept on guard against the smoke produced by faulty brakes. A good crew would also open the windows and smell for hot grease or smoke.
- Longtime Jacksonville resident, Jack Fry, the son of a railroad man, remembers how caboose crews constantly watched for “hot boxes.” Thirty or more years ago, wheel bearings on train cars were of the “friction” type, that is, a brass or other metal “hub” which rotated in a brass sleeve. For lubrication, the hub also revolved in a bed of oil-saturated cotton “waste” at the bottom of a box. If the waste ran dry or got wedged between the hub and sleeve, the friction’s heat could cause the waste in the box to catch fire. If unattended, the heat buildup could eventually create a meltdown of the bearing brasses, possibly leading to derailment. And wooden railroad cars could be destroyed by hot box flames too.
- Along with its safety function, the caboose doubled as a train conductor’s office. Prior to computers, a conductor faced endless paperwork at his caboose desk. He kept track of who was shipping what to whom on each railroad car. Among other facts, records also showed the station at which cargoes were received, the station at which they were to be unloaded or left, the weight of each shipment, whether the shipper or the consignee was to pay the freight charges, and if there were empty cars in the train. The conductor also carried out written orders that told where and when to stop. (These instruction were nicknamed “flimsies” because of the thin tissue paper on which they were typed.) And the conductor made sure that all of the proper supplies and spare parts were carried onboard, including air hoses, flares, lanterns, flags, brakes, couplers, lubricating grease, drinking water, oil or coal for the caboose stove, etc.
- A caboose served a home away from home for the conductor and brakemen. It contained beds, benches, chairs, a washstand, a toilet, and a coal stove for heat & cooking, as well as lockers for tools, clothes, and personal items. Some cabooses were even decorated with posters and magazine pictures. In addition to the usual personnel, other people occasionally occupied cabooses. These included the caretakers of livestock and perishable fruits and vegetables.
- Cabooses provided a place from which to signal. Doors opened onto platforms at each end of a caboose, and a ladder went to the roof, from which the caboose personnel could signal to the locomotive engineer or to other crew members. Brackets on the corners of the car held signal lights too.
THE END OF THE LINE — Whatever happened to cabooses? In the computer age, it seems the personal touch often isn’t needed anymore: Cabooses have been replaced by various warning instruments.
Freight trains are monitored by remote radio mechanisms called “End of Train” devices, or EOTs. Mounted on railroad cars, EOTs transmit safety info to locomotive engineers. In addition, infrared trackside detectors are usually spaced every 10 to 20 miles and at some hazard spots like the bottom of hills and at the ends of railroad yards. They are embedded underneath the track and scan every axle of the train for any hot spots emanating from brake pads or locked wheels. The instruments can pick up hot boxes, dragging gear, and high or wide equipment. They also indicate where a train is located on the line and how fast it’s going.
Other factors have also served as nails in the coffins of cabooses:
- Trains have become so long that it’s really tough to watch over them from a caboose.
- Railroad cars have grown taller in height, making it much more difficult to see over them.
- Labor agreements have limited the amount of time that train crews can spend on the job, therefore diminishing the need for cabooses as living quarters.
Some cabooses, nevertheless, have found new life. Railroad companies have refitted a few cabooses as tool cars, hoist cars, boom tenders, and bunk quarters for crews toiling in isolated areas. In non-railroad roles, moreover, cabooses have popped up as cabins, campsites, restaurants, snack shops, and even dental offices.
A local place to visit an old caboose is at the Clay County Historical Museum, which offers an impressive railroad memorabilia collection. This institution is located in Green Cove Springs, 20 miles south of downtown Jacksonville.
A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME — In addition to those listed above, other nicknames for a caboose included accommodation car, ape wagon, back box, bed house, bobber, bouncer, brainbox, buggy, cab, cabin car, cage, captain’s cage, chariot, colophon, conductor’s car, crumby, crummy, diner, doghouse, drone house, drover’s cab, glory wagon, go cart, guard car, hack, hay wagon, hearse, hut, kitchen, observation car, palace, parlor, parlor shack, pavilion, perambulator, postfix, shanty, shelter car, shelter house, trailer, way car, zoo, and zoo car.
~written by Glenn Emery