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Our caboose was built in December 1972 for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. Today, cabooses are not used by American railroads, but before the 1980s, every train ended in a caboose, usually painted red, but sometimes painted in colors which matched the engine at the front of the train.
The purpose of the caboose was to provide a rolling office for the train's conductor and the brakemen. The conductor was the railroad official who was responsible for the train... he was the train's captain. It was his job to ensure that the train arrived at its destination safely and that all of the cargo was delivered properly. It was also his responsibility to ensure that the train was loaded with enough fuel to make its destination, and that it was "rail worthy." In order to do all this, it became customary by the 1850s to include a small box car on the end of the train where the conductor could do his work, and serve as his quarters.
Not until 1898 did the caboose acquire its distinctive "cupola." The purpose of this high seat surrounded by windows was to allow the conductor to see what was going on all the way up the train. At that time, applying the brakes had to be done manually by turning a wheel located on each car. The brakemen used ladders to climb to the top of the train, and would walk along the the roof of the cars in order to access the brake wheel on each of the cars. From his cupola, the conductor could see and direct this activity.
As a rolling office and living quarters, the caboose was equipped with a desk, restroom, water supply, stove, heater, bed and even an icebox. And, of course, all sorts of supplies from oil cans to red signal flags, lanterns and extra lantern fuel. It was the rolling HQ for the train!
Although this system worked for over 100 years, it had a few issues. Before electronic communication was invented, communication between the conductor in the caboose and the engineer in the locomotive was sometimes problematic. Perhaps more frustrating for the railroads was the need to provide a conductor with the caboose that was assigned to him. This complicated the logistics of putting together a train, and added a great deal of expense. Over the decades, the railroads stuck with the caboose because, despite the expense, it worked.
However, all of that began to change in the 1960s. As computers became more powerful, and electronic communication more pervasive, the technology began to develop to the point where the caboose could be replaced. A crew of dozens of brakemen were no longer necessary, as air brakes could stop a train without them. As locomotives became diesel electric, the job of being an engineer shifted from stoking the boiler to operating an increasingly computerized cockpit. Beginning in the 1980s, the railroads began replacing their cabooses with small little electronic boxes called a Flashing Rear End Device, or FRED. The FRED could monitor the brake system, and display the results in the locomotive, rendering the caboose obsolete. Today, a FRED is attached to the end of every train, doing the job that, 100 years ago, it took a crew of dozens to do.
In the 1980s, Missouri Pacific replaced their caboose fleet with FREDs. At that time, our caboose was obtained by Dow Chemical to serve as sleeping quarters for employees who needed to accompany special tank cars. By the early 1990s, such trips were no longer necessary, as it became customary practice to simply fly such employees to their destination, if they were needed.
Dow divested itself of its cabooses in 1992, donating our caboose to the Houston Children's Museum where it was displayed for the next 15 years to the delight of young Houstonians who remembered what a caboose was and how common they had once been. The Houston Children's Museum donated the little red caboose to the Rosenberg Railroad Museum in 2007, providing the caboose with a permanent home where it could be preserved as an important artifact of an era before computers, when men controlled massive trains of passengers and cargo with their hands and their heads.
Come to the Rosenberg Railroad Museum and visit Missouri Pacific Caboose #13591 to see how American railroad conductors lived and worked for over 100 years!