Everyone has heard of the caboose on the end of a train. But what was the real purpose of them? Were they just filled with coal like all the other train cars? And why did we used to see conductors standing at the back of them years ago, but not anymore?
Cabooses came about in the 1800’s when trains became a popular use of transportation for various goods. The majority of trains were used to transport coal to coalmines. As train transportation grew more and more popular, conductors and engineers realized that you could see the entire back half of the train from the caboose. This realization led to the main purpose of cabooses, not only a place to monitor and control the other half of the train’s cars, breaks, and gauges, but also a place to call home.
For every train, each caboose would house a conductor, brakemen and flagmen. Before the 1900’s, cabooses were only for the executive use of the conductor. They soon realized they needed a couple more people to better control the train’s brakes as well as another set of eyes to prevent any miscommunication.
Train crews would spend anywhere from 3-5 days, sometimes even weeks living on cabooses, serving as their home to and from the destination. Each caboose had its own restroom, a stove that they would put coal in to make a fire for cooking and warmth, a freezer box to keep food cold, beds, storage cabinets, windows and a cupola to look out and see the tracks. Cabinets in each caboose would hold food, clothes and rain gear for the crewmembers.
On the ceilings were metal rails for the crews to hold onto incase the train ran off the tracks or due to the fact that the ride was far from smooth. This was because of the way they were built early on; tracks were composed of sections of rail bolted together every thirty feet, which made the ride pretty bumpy.
Conductors and crewmembers were also very territorial about their cabooses. If you wanted to come on their caboose, you would have to ask permission, and some crewmembers would even make you take your shoes off. Many men would also put pictures of loved ones on the walls and hang curtains on the windows. Also, when trains would pass by towns on the way to their destinations, the conductors would often throw pieces of candy to children, which was always something to look forward to.
Today, cabooses are no longer needed on the end of trains because of modern technology. They were replaced with small, electronic device about the size of an iPad called an EOT, which stands for End of Train. EOT’s complete all the tasks conductors, brakemen and flagmen did.
On April 22, 2016, Whitesville celebrated the 70 birthday of the caboose that is located at the Coal Heritage RiverWalk. This caboose was built in 1946 for the Leigh High Valley Railroad. In the late 1970s to the early 1980s the caboose went to service for the Winifrede Railroad, which was one of the oldest short line railroads in West Virginia.
The caboose was owned by Penn Virginia Corporation, and then was donated it to the Upper Big Branch Mining Memorial Group. What makes this caboose so special is that it has it’s original icebox and toilet. The original coal stove that heated the space had been replaced with a diesel stove in the early 1960s. Today the diesel-burning stove is still in the caboose.
To celebrate the 70th birthday of the caboose in Whitesville, the train was opened as an educational destination, complete with a large seating area and deck. As part of the celebration, Conductor Tony took some time off from the railways to teach Whitesville Elementary School interesting facts and the purpose behind the caboose