Caboose was a 'home away from home' for railroad crew

June 11, 2004|by LISA PREJEAN

"Little Red Caboose, Little Red Caboose, Riding Behind the Train, Woo, Woo."Get Your Ticket and Get on Board. Riding Behind the Train, Woo, Woo."

My 5-year-old was chugging around the kitchen one day, pretending to be a train. She was listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock's rendition of "Little Red Caboose." When the song ended, she came over to help with the dishes and, of course, to ask a question.

"Mommy, why don't we see little red cabooses behind trains anymore?"

I told her that was a good question, one that I could ask our friends at the Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum.

If you've never been to the museum at 300 S. Burhans Blvd. in Hagerstown, this weekend would be a good time to check it out.

The 14th annual Railroad Heritage Days is set for Saturday, June 12, and Sunday, June 13, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.


As part of the festivities, a red caboose will be on display.

While cabooses are scarce today, they are used occasionally, says Robert Tracey, president of the Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum.

Crews feel protected if they have a caboose for a long backup move because someone can observe from the back of the train.

For the most part, cabooses have gone by the wayside because of the advent of computers, flashing lights and state-of-the-art equipment.

In the early days of the railroad, the caboose served as an office for the conductor, explains William Knode, a member of the Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum board of directors.

It's where the conductor would keep the train's manifest, the paper documents that told him everything he needed to know about that run. Waybills, which detailed the contents of each car, were part of the manifest.

"The conductor had to see that it got to the right people at the end of the run," Knode says.

The caboose also served as living quarters for the crew. It's where they ate, slept and played cards.

"They like to refer to it as a 'home away from home,'" says Bobby Fouche, a member of the Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum board of directors.

Crew members also had nicknames for the caboose, Tracey says.

Cabooses were called the "crummy" because the previous crew often didn't clean up after itself, and the next crew would climb on board to a mess.

Cabooses also were called cabin cars because they resembled cabins, cab cars and hacks, which also was a nickname for a taxi cab.

The track where cabooses sat when not in use was called a cab track.

A conductor was the boss, the person ultimately responsible for the train. He wore a black or dark blue squared-off hat. An engineer ran the train, guiding it and making it move. He wore a blue-and-white striped cap. The flagman and brakeman rounded out the crew.

Before the days of flashing lights, the flagman would jump off the train at intersections and wave flags as a warning to oncoming traffic. A flagman also protected the rear of the train. If the train would stop along the tracks, the flagman would put flares out to warn oncoming trains.

Before air brakes were used, the brakeman would walk on top of the rail cars and set the brakes individually. He also would help the conductor set cars out of the train on a side track at a mill or other facility when a delivery was made. Then he had to recouple the train.

From the observation window in the caboose, crew members could watch for fire at the train's wheels. Trains used to have solid bearings that had to be lubricated. Roller bearings that are used today reduce the chance of fire.

Today's trains typically have a two-person crew, the conductor and the engineer, and the train's manifest is computerized. There is a computer in the front of the train, which now serves as the crew's "office."

A front and rear end device, referred to as a FRED, allows the crews of today to keep track of activity throughout the train. This portable device is placed at the back of each train.

For more information about cabooses, the Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum or Railroad Heritage Days, call 301-739-4665.

"Little Red Caboose" by Sweet Honey in the Rock is part of the CD "A Child's Celebration of Song" produced by Music for Little People.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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