A caboose seems just the right way to bring the year to a close on Freight Car Friday. This year we take a look at one of the most iconic of these crummies, the B&O’s distinctive I-12 “Wagontop.”
In an era where railroads were often fiercely independent, it was not uncommon to see in-house designs for equipment. This was especially true for cabooses. On the Baltimore and Ohio, these unique designs were born out of more than just corporate pride – it was a matter of economic survival in the Great Depression.
The Wagontop Design
Amid the troubled years of the Great Depression, the B&O was faced with many problems. Two of the most pressing were a need for new freight cars (but with little funds for new purchases) and a work force in need of meaningful labor. The B&O could not afford to keep idle hands on the job, but at the same time did not want to see a valued labor pool sent home – nor morale of the workers retained drop any lower.
In 1934 the B&O’s Chief Mechanical Officer, John Tatum, devised a new car design that could solve both of these problems. Tatum’s design utilized the frames of old wood boxcars as a starting point. Steel support hoops – shaped in an upside down “U” were attached to the frame. Steel sheets were then attached to the sides of these hoops to form the sides and roof. This gave the cars a look similar to the classic covered wagon and the “Wagontop” was born.
The first experiments were with boxcars. Covered hoppers followed soon after. Through the remainder of the Depression, the B&O turned out more than 4000 Wagontop cars in its own car shops. The cars not only kept the workers employed, they could be built for less than the cost of new equipment. And the design itself proved quite valid – as durable as it was distinctive.
The I-12 Caboose
Following on the success of these revenue cars, the B&O applied the same design and construction principles to a new caboose. The first prototype cabooses were classed I-5. Shortly thereafter, construction began on a fleet of 100 similar I-12 cabooses in the Keyser, WV shops. These were completed in 1941. An additional run of 25 came by 1945.
In addition to the distinctive Wagontop construction, these cars employed another design feature that was relatively novel for the time, the bay-window. While not the first examples of bay-windows being used on the side of the caboose, the B&O’s were the first to do so on a large scale. The company liked them so much that they became the standard on the line for future orders as well. It would not be until the 1960s that other roads took to the bay-window in a big way.
The lower height afforded by the lack of a cupola was accentuated by the short length of the I-12 as well. At only 30 feet in length, the I-12 was petite compared to standards on other roads. While they were short, they were also quite rugged. Their sturdy construction made them the caboose of choice in mountains where pusher locomotives were coupled to the rear of the train. This eliminated the need to put the caboose behind the locomotives or have the crew ride in the cab.
Many of the venerable cars lasted well into the Chessie era. Unlike the early cupola-equipped cars of other roads, the view from the innovative I-12 was never compromised by new high-cube boxcars. While some of the details and crew comforts were upgraded (like the switch from coal to oil heat) the iconic look of the cabooses remained relatively unchanged over more than 40 years of service.
Today many of these classic cars have been preserved in museums and parks all across the former B&O territory. Lionel has reproduced this car as well and it will look right at home behind an EM-1, a set of Sharks, or even an SD40! It’s just one of many reasons why its hard not to love the B&O.