Union Pacific Railroad Caboose No. 25256

The humble caboose was a fixture on the end of freight trains for more than a century. The name may have originated with a French or Dutch word describing a deck cabin on a sailing ship, but railroaders, always inventive, called it by dozens of slang names: cabin car, crummy, shack, way car, bobber, brainbox, shanty, hack and many others. The purpose was to provide a sheltered vantage point from which trainmen could watch the cars ahead, cook and eat their meals, and where the conductor could do paperwork.

The typical caboose featured a raised cupola with seats for a brakeman, a heating and cooking stove, bunks for the crew to use on long runs, and a conductor's desk. Each railroad had its own approach to design, with some cars being quite elaborate and others very simple. In the early days the color was almost invariably red or yellow, creating the durable image of "the little red caboose." As the railroads changed, the caboose was adapted as well. They began to be built of steel in the late 1920s, and some railroads replaced the cupola design with bay windows on the sides. Longer, faster runs with no switching made the caboose less important on some routes, and trackside equipment capable of detecting hot wheel bearings and dragging brake gear could do much the same job as a watchful brakeman. Labor contracts requiring fewer train crew members allowed conductors and brakemen to ride the locomotives, and it was evident by the mid-1980s that the caboose would become extinct. Today the caboose is nearly gone, having been replaced by electronic boxes attached to the last car of a train which transmit information to the engineer.