A Quick History of the Caboose

Of all rail cars, cabooses may be the most beloved and recognizable.

While they are no longer familiar sights on the rails today, dozens live on in museums nationwide or as trackside monuments in the towns the railroad helped shape.

Despite the public’s affinity for cabooses, their history is not entirely clear, but likely date to the 1830s. Here are a few interesting facts about cabooses:

  • The word caboose may be derived from the Dutch word “kombuis,” which originally referred to a gallery on a ship
  • According to one theory, “Uncle Nat” Williams, a conductor with the Auburn and Syracuse Railroad, used an empty boxcar at the end of a freight train for his office (complete with a wood box for a chair and a barrel for a desk), the first use of a caboose
  • Early cabooses were often repurposed from old railcars featuring shanties built on boxcars or flatcars
  • T. B. Watson, a conductor with the Chicago & North Western, is credited with creating the cupola caboose in 1863
  • The rear brakeman originally worked out of the caboose and was responsible for applying the handbrakes to the freight cars on the rear of the train at the request of the engineer (based on his whistle commands); that changed with the 1869 introduction of George Westinghouse’s air brakes
  • While cabooses might seem like a fun place to work, they were dangerous
  • There were approximately 2,700 cabooses in use on American railroads in 1870 and more than 17,600 in use in 1900
  • The introduction of all-steel cabooses dates to after World War I
  • Until the 1980s, freight trains were required to have cabooses; remote radio devices named “End of Train” devices (EOTs) replaced them
  • Not all cabooses were red; other common caboose colors included blue, green and yellow
Todd DeFeo
About Todd DeFeo 285 Articles
Todd DeFeo loves to travel anywhere, anytime, taking pictures and notes. An award-winning reporter, Todd revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He is owner of The DeFeo Groupe and also edits Express Telegraph and The Travel Trolley.