Union Pacific Railroad
Wooden Cupola Caboose
Union Pacific Shops – 1881
Union Pacific – 1952
Up until the 1980s, the railroad caboose was a common sight at the rear end of nearly every freight train in America. Cabooses were an indispensable part of railroad operations; serving as a ‘home-on-wheels’ for the train’s crew, a mobile office for the train’s conductor, and a vantage point for the brakeman to keep an eye on the rest of the cars as the train rolled along. The elevated viewing box atop the roof is called the “cupola” – from that spot, a member of the train’s crew could look out along the entire length of the train, watching for ‘hot boxes’, shifted loads, hobos and other issues that might require the train to make an emergency stop.
Consider making a donation to help our museum volunteers restore the trains and improve your Travel Town experience!
The inside of a typical railroad caboose would include chairs and bunks for the conductor and brakemen, as well as storage cabinets, toilet, and wash basin — you might think of it as a ‘motor home’ on rails. Traditionally, a wood-burning “potbelly” stove provided for both heating and cooking needs, with kerosene lamps being used for lighting. By the mid-20th Century, more ‘modern’ cabooses were equipped with oil-fired stoves and electrical lighting. An all-important feature of the caboose was a desk for the train’s conductor; there he would work on his switching lists, cargo manifests, time sheets and train orders – all vital for keeping the train running safely on-time and shipments getting to their proper destinations.
By the 1980s, innovations in radio communications, air-brake systems and containerized freight shipments greatly simplified train operations and reduced the number of crew-members needed aboard a train. With railroads eager to reduce costs, cabooses were soon deemed unnecessary. On today’s freight trains, the conductor and/or other crew-members ride in the locomotive with the engineer, while a small device mounted on the last car of the train transmits air brake pressure to the engine crew by radio. Once synonymous with the “end of the train” – a caboose is now a very rare sight on American rails.