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Strasburg rail road's caboose #12 sitting on the train tracks.

The caboose is an iconic symbol of America’s railroad history. For over a hundred years, this unique train car traveled at the rear of every train across the country. 

From their origins as simple platforms to their evolution into fully-equipped crew quarters, explore the fascinating history of the caboose and its impact on the American railroad industry.  

What Is A Caboose?

The caboose is the boxy car that was historically attached to the end of a freight train. In their earliest days, they were created by repurposing old train cars as crew quarters to house trainmen while they were on the go. 

The word “caboose” is supposedly derived from the Dutch word “kombuis,” which was the term used to describe a ship’s galley. They played a key role in railroad operations for over a century.

What Is The Purpose Of A Caboose?

The caboose has served many purposes over the years. For starters, the caboose was the brakeman station. Before air brakes were invented by George Westinghouse in 1869, the brakemen had the critical role of pulling the handbrakes to bring the train to a stop.

Their jobs were easily one of the most dangerous, but most important, of railroad operations at the time. To pull the brakes, these men had to ride on top of the train cars, jumping from one to another to stop each cab. 

Even though their jobs were so dangerous, they were forced to operate in all climates and unsafe weather conditions because the train couldn’t stop without them. The caboose offered shelter for these personnel to travel safely in a cab until it was time to perform their duties.  

Later, as air brakes became the standard technology, the need for these dangerous railroad jobs became obsolete. The caboose slowly evolved from the brakeman’s station into the conductor’s rolling office.

Conductors had plenty of paperwork in the early days of railroading history. From waybills and train routes to schedules and passenger information, train conductors were the soul of operations. Yet, they didn’t have any real space to sort or store these documents.

With brakemen no longer riding trains, the door opened for conductors to set up shop in the caboose. And once they did, they made themselves comfortable. 

Cabooses then evolved to serve a new purpose: a home away from home. Many railroad companies assigned the caboose exclusively to the conductor or other crew members. By then, most cars had been renovated to include bunks, bathrooms, and stoves, and it wasn’t uncommon to see the inside decorated with curtains, family photos, and other homey touches. 

Caboose History

Oddly enough, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the caboose’s history. According to most sources, their origins date back to the 1830s. 

A popular story suggests that “Uncle Nat” Williams of the Auburn & Syracuse Railroad was the first to use the caboose. He set up an office inside the train’s caboose, using a barrel for a desk and a wooden box for a chair.

From there, the use of the caboose skyrocketed. By the late 19th century, this train car was one of the most recognizable staples of the railroad industry. 

Around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, cars were starting to get some major upgrades. Their interiors were repurposed to include bunks, bathrooms and showers, and small kitchens. On the exterior, wooden materials were replaced with stronger, steel materials. (Interestingly enough, however, many wooden cars were still operating until the 1970s.) Their designs evolved during this time, too.

Classic fire-engine red cupola caboose parked on a track.

Types Of Cabooses

Cupola Caboose

T.B. Watson of the Chicago and North Western Railroad is credited with introducing the cupola to the caboose in the 1860s. The cupola was designed to sit atop the train car to serve as a lookout center for crew members. 

Eventually, they became so common that cupola cabooses were considered the standard model, though their designs varied. The cupolas were sometimes installed at the center, off-center, or at the very front or end of the car.

Bobber Caboose 

The “bobber” became the name for short caboose cars with only 2 fixed axles and 4 wheels total. The immobility of the wheels made for some rough, jostling rides — which is how they acquired their nickname! From the vision of onlookers, these cabooses jerked up and down like a bobber on the end of a fishing line. 

Four-wheel bobber cabooses were outlawed in Ohio in 1913, requiring that these cars use an 8-wheel configuration instead. Other states followed their lead shortly after. 

Bay Window Caboose

The bay window caboose was designed to replace the use of cupola lookouts around the 1920s. Large windows were installed on a projection off the side of the train car, which helped improve the visibility for crew members to monitor signals from the engineer. 

Overall, the bay windows helped improve safety, which is why many railroads started to prefer these models over the cupola. 

Transfer Caboose

Transfers were the last iteration of the caboose. These cars abandoned all of the previous design enhancements and reverted to their bare-bones, boxy look. There was no need for cupolas, bay windows, or interior dormitories because their purpose was to switch cars on the short line

Why Don’t Trains Have Cabooses Anymore?

By the 1980s, the US and Canada were one of the few countries still using the caboose. Train cars started getting longer, heavier, and faster — a hazardous combination for crews riding on board. Plus, new labor laws reduced crew hours, eliminating the need for caboose crew quarters. 

Those changes, paired with advancing technology eventually led to the decline of the caboose. Modern trains use “End of Train” (EOTs) devices or “Flashing Rear-End Devices” (FREDs) to monitor the train’s air brake pressure and bring the train to a halt safely

How Cabooses Are Used Today

There are still some cabooses in use today. Most are transfer cars, used for minor operations. However, their legacy lives on in static displays in community parks, museums, and railroad yards. Some people have even repurposed retired cars into charming train car homes!

side angle of Strasburg Rail Road's cupola caboose car #12

Explore Strasburg Rail Road’s Caboose!

Visit and tour a historic cupola caboose at Strasburg Rail Road. Caboose No. 12, acquired by Strasburg Rail Road Company in October 1964, is the home of our interactive escape room experience. 

Get your tickets to solve “The Curse of the Bobber,” hosted on Strasburg Rail Road’s stationary caboose.