Menu ☰
The Smoke Stack

What IS a Caboose?

Posted on April 14, 2017

The word “caboose” is of Dutch origin and means the “galley of a ship.” More modern terms for the caboose evolved: crummy, cabin, hack. Why these terms were applied to a railroad car is uncertain, but entertaining!

The need for the caboose was first as an office for the conductor who was responsible for the train and the routing of the cars, resulting in much paperwork. Also, the two brakemen needed shelter for themselves, and storage for their lanterns and flags. Until recently, train crews would be in service commonly two days and possibly a week or more under storm and delay circumstances. By 1850 the design of the cars included beds, stoves, lockers, and one or more desks. It was necessary for the crews to monitor the train for hot wheel bearings, dragging car parts, protruding lading, and the omnipresent hobos. Thus came the addition of a lookout, or cupola, on the car top.

By the 1920’s, the caboose had become all-steel in construction for both fire safety and to withstand pushing by the ever-larger locomotives on the end of the train. You will note on our caboose the overhead grab bar. Cabooses were subject to extreme jerking motion when starting and stopping long freight trains. Red painted cabooses were common for safe visibility. As the modern freight cars became so tall that the train could not be “eyeballed” from the cupola, cabooses were re-designed with the viewing windows on their sides.

Train crews of today are much smaller (usually two people) and all ride in the large, comfortable cabs of the modern diesel locomotives. Lamps and electronic brake devices are hung from the last car of the freight train to take the place of the caboose. Alas, an icon of American railroading has been relegated to the past.

The caboose, or cabin car as the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) referred to it, is owned by the non-profit Friends of the Valley Railroad, and was named in honor of Ralph H. Gibson, a longtime member of the FVRR and for many years a conductor on the Valley Railroad. (If you rode the Valley in the 70′s or 80′s, you probably met him.) This particular car was originally built for the PRR, passed on to Penn-Central, and subsequently to Conrail.

Upon its retirement, it was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. William Stoddard of Palmer. MA. In 1993, the Stoddards donated the caboose to the Friends with the hope that it would someday once again grace the rails. They had to wait six years, but in 1999 their wish become a reality.

<< Back