A caboose was a fixed feature at the end of every freight train in North America for more than a century. Like the red schoolhouse and the red barn, the red caboose developed into an American icon. Yet soon after the disappearance of the steam locomotive, the caboose also became superfluous and so today it merely still keeps memories of the gold era of railroading alive.
Actually, there are conflicting versions of how the caboose came by its name. A favorite story refers to a derivation of the word "Kabuis", a small room or hut. More concrete however is the origin of the first railroad caboose, which can be traced back to the 1840s. Nat Williams, a train conductor of the small Auburn & Syracuse Railroad in the north of New York State, decided one day to convert the empty boxcar at the end of his train into a "rolling office". Williams sat there on a wooden crate and used a barrel as a desk. In addition, he stored flags, lanterns, chains, and other tools in this first caboose.
By contrast, the origin of the unique cupola on the top of a caboose is attributed to T. B. Watson, a train conductor on the Chicago & North Western Railroad. In 1863, Watson had to use a boxcar unexpectedly as a caboose as the end of his train. This car had a hole in the roof. Watson came upon the idea of placing a pair of handy crates on top of each other and standing on them so that his head and shoulders protruded from the hole. This gave him a marvelous view over the entire train. After returning to his home station, Watson related his positive experiences to a chief mechanic. The latter suggested providing a caboose in the process of being built with a "lookout" and thus was born the first caboose with a cupola.
By the mid-Twenties there were about 34,000 cabooses running on the American railroads. In addition to the work area for the conductor, they often had bunk beds for sleeping, stoves for cooking, toilets, as well as electric heating, refrigerators, and radio communications starting in the Fifties. In addition, the cars were used as storage space for tools and all kinds of materials. In the beginning, most railroads painted their cabooses in a gleaming red color. Yet after World War II, cabooses began to turn up in many different colors, many of them similar to the paint schemes for the new diesel locomotives of the different railroads.
The nail in the coffin for the caboose was finally the so-called "End-of-Train" (EOT) telemetry device. This small metal box is attached to the rear coupler of the last car in the train and is connected to the air brake line. Powered by a battery, the EOT sends a regular signal to the locomotive about brake pressure, movement, and direction of movement for the last car. In addition, these devices are equipped with a sensor-controlled red blinking light that serves at night as a marker for the end of the train. At the end of the Eighties, all of the US states as well as the Canadian government had approved the use of the EOT system, and the caboose thus became pretty much unemployed. Today there are only a couple hundred cabooses still in use for special transfer trains, special switching work, work trains, and for trains that have to be pushed for longer periods of time.