While not technically a freight car per se, how else could we end the year without putting a caboose at the end of this train?
The caboose became much more than a functional car, it became an icon of railroading. Call them crummies, cabin cars, brake vans, bobbers or hacks, these little cars have protected the rear of the train for more than 100 years. Besides being the target of public attention and the star of children’s stories, the caboose actually had several important roles to play on the railroad.
The caboose was a mobile office for the conductor and train crew. The conductor processed paperwork for the train, including shipping information for each car and operating orders to get the train over the road safely. In addition, the caboose served as an observation platform to observe the train ahead for overheating bearings, shifting loads, or other hazards. The caboose could also serve as a home-away-from-home for crews laying over in distant towns.
In earlier years cabooses, like locomotives, were often assigned to a specific conductor. It was not uncommon for them to customize their abode with curtains, decoration, even door mats. Eventually efficiency dictated the pooling of the cars. Cooking duties usually fell to the brakeman, the lowest man on the seniority roster, or simply the best cook among the crew. Lodging was basic, but comfortable.
Cabooses came in many forms – tailored for the work at hand. Larger cars were generally used on longer runs. Bay windows offered a more practical and safe vantage point around taller cars than cupolas (the little box on top.) Steel cars began arriving around 1910, but some wooden cars remained in service into the 1970s. Although a few companies, like the International Car Company, did eventually offer a standard car that could be sold to many roads, most designed and many built their own cars.
The caboose became part of the railroad’s signature and many designs can be quickly linked to their railroad even without seeing the paint. Red was indeed a very common color for visibility, but cabooses came in just about every color imaginable. Typically they were painted to complement the locomotives, but special commemorative cars were also quite common. Other railroads used the caboose as a platform for safety campaigns for highway crossings or railroad employees.
While they have largely faded from the mainlines of North America, the caboose can still be found on locals and work trains, excursion railroads, parks, playgrounds, hotels, restaurants, museums, and of course our model railroads. We hope you’ve enjoyed the Freight Car Friday blogs throughout 2011. We’re going to keep it going in 2012 but with a tighter focus on some specific cars and models.