The Caboose's Early Uses

The caboose served several functions, one of which was as an office for the conductor. A printed "waybill" followed every freight car from its origin to destination, and the conductor kept the paperwork in the caboose.

The caboose also carried a brakeman and a flagman. In the days before automatic air brakes, the engineer signaled the caboose with his whistle when he wanted to slow down or stop. The brakeman then would climb out and make his way forward, twisting the brakewheels atop the cars with a stout club. Another brakeman riding the engine would work his way toward the rear. Once the train was stopped, the flagman would descend from the caboose and walk back to a safe distance with lanterns, flags and other warning devices to stop any approaching trains.

Once under way, the trainmen would sit up in the cupola and watch for smoke or other signs of trouble from overheated wheel journals (called hotboxes).

The Cupola

The addition of the cupola – the lookout post atop the car – is attributed to a conductor who discovered in 1863 that he could see his train much better if he sat atop boxes and peered through the hole in the roof of his boxcar

Home Away From Home

It was common for railroads to assign a caboose to a conductor for his exclusive use. Conductors took great pride in their cars, despite the caboose's many derogatory nicknames, including crummy, doghouse, bone-breaker, snake wagon and hearse.

The men decorated their car interiors with many homey touches, including curtains and family photos. Some of the most important additions were ingredients for cooking meals that became a part of American folklore. Augmented with such comforting features, the caboose served as a home away from the trainmen's home terminals.