It wouldn't surprise me if many of our younger viewers failed to recognise the vehicle shown above, though anyone over 50 should instantly recognise it as a "caboose." The photo was taken at Illinois Central’s South Water Street freight terminal in Chicago, April 1943 and is among sixty photographs that will appear in the Center’s exhibition "Faces of Chicago’s Railroad Community: Photographs by Jack Delano," which will open April 4, 2013, at the Chicago History Museum.
Throughout most of railroad history the last car in a freight train was the caboose, there to provide train crews (usually a conductor and a brakeman) with shelter. The crew could exit the caboose for switching or to protect the rear of the train when stopped, check for malfunctions such as shifting loads, broken or dragging equipment, and look for hot boxes (overheated axle bearings, a serious fire and derailment threat). The caboose was also a mobile office with minimal living quarters, a table or desk for record keeping, and stoves or heaters to provide warmth. Although they came in various designs and styles most had a box-like area with windows, located above the roof in the middle or the rear, known as a "cupola." Fitted with a special seat, the cupola allowed the conductor to look ahead and keep an eye for problems.
By the mid-80s railroad technology had improved sufficiently that many of the crew's responsibilities were made redundant and that gave the companies a money-saving excuse to eliminate cabooses from service. The conductor was moved to the head of the train in the diesel engine's cab, while a flashing rear end device (FRED) was attached to the rear of the train to detect air brake pressure and report any problems to the locomotive.
For those of us who grew up with railways from the days of steam engines, a freight without a caboose just doesn't look right. If we were waiting at a crossing for a train to pass and looked back down the line the caboose was always a reminder that the end was in sight. Sometimes we'd even get a friendly wave from the crew. Watching a freight pass today is like a movie that goes black with the last scene and has no credits. Fortunately a few cabooses are still in use around rail yards, for special service and attached to railfan trains, while hundreds have been preserved as museum artifacts. They've also been converted to living quarters and restaurants.
Inspiration for this blog came from the Center for Railroad Photography & Art. If you're a train fan, and many classic car enthusiasts are, the Web site is worth a visit.