COBWEB CORNERS: A hidden object in plain sight
By Mel McFarland
Well, this headline may have gotten a few of you! I want to talk about one of my favorite objects today. Some of you know I own a caboose. Yes, there is a caboose in the trees over along US 24, but today I want to talk a bit about mine. You folks also may know it caused a great disturbance in the neighborhood where I moved, but in the twelve years it has been there, for the most part no one even notices it is there, sort of like the one where they park the trash trucks!
So what was a caboose actually used for? Nowadays, the railroads do not use them for much. In the old days, a train might have a crew of five to seven men. The engine might have three in it, and if there was more than one engine, each had two more men. There was an engineer who ran the engine, a fireman who kept the engine running and sometimes a head end brake man who helped stop the train. On the other end was the caboose with a conductor who managed the business of the train, and usually another brake man. To a conductor, the caboose was his office and his home. On most railroads, a caboose was assigned to a conductor and only he used it. Later, the cabooses were needed to go longer distances than one conductor could travel. Other conductors would take over, such as when a train might travel from Chicago to Los Angeles.
In the early days, the conductor or brakeman might even cook food in the caboose. Up in the engine this was easy, but it did not happen so often except for maybe a pot of coffee. As the conductor sat where he could watch the train, he would monitor where the train was to pick up or set out cars during its trip. Later conductors even had radios to talk to the engineer and the dispatcher; otherwise, notes were passed to the trains as they went by stations.
My caboose was built sixty years ago for use up in Montana and it is heavily insulated. There were places for the entire crew to sleep if they had to. Up there, trains sometimes got stuck in snowstorms. The crew had a place to take shelter if it was needed. Now, on most trains there are only two people, the engineer and the conductor. In some places the engineer even does the conductor's job.