February 5th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 5
Looking Back - John Kinnear
The End of the End of the Train
Looking Back
courtesy wordpress.com
Remembering steam billowing up into the air
I have wonderful childhood memories of watching old steam trains chuffing westward down the rail line towards the old Coleman coal company tipple back in the early 1950’s. I grew up in a house on a hill that overlooked downtown Coleman and it had a perfect bird’s-eye view of the CPR line from Blairmore all the way to West Coleman. It’s hard to describe just how beautiful those big locomotives looked as their steam plumes tumbled up into a crisp winter’s bright blue sky. For a train spotter it just didn’t get any better.

There was always a lot of switching and shunting going on in the tipple yard as empty cars were uncoupled and loaded coal cars were added to make up a new train. What fascinated me most of all was the bright red caboose at the tail end of each train. Inevitably it was uncoupled and left behind at the east end of Bushtown until all the switching and maneuvering had been done. Then the engineer would let out a long blast to signal to the conductor that he was ready to go. The conductor would climb out of the caboose and release its brake whereupon it would slowly roll westward (because of the grade) and join the end of the train.

The red stepped caboose was a remarkable piece of transport design that sadly disappeared in the mid 1980’s. I miss waving to the conductor as he rode up high in the cupola, with his arm hanging out the window. What a great view he had, just sitting back and watching the scenery unfold ahead of him.

How the caboose came to be and why it ceased to exist is an interesting story. The origin of the word “caboose” goes back quite a ways. It comes from the Old Dutch or Low German kabuis, or kaban-huis, literally a “cabin house”.

By late in the eighteenth century the English had turned kabuis into caboose which was the cook’s cabin, located on the foredeck of ships in the merchant marine. They set them up on a square of timbers filled with sand somewhere on the foredeck. The sand was there to keep the cook from setting the ship on fire. Sounds a little dicey to me.
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The French language uses the word cambuse which when translated means storehouse. This eventually transformed into camboose in Quebec as camboose. They were generally cook’s shacks in logging camps and like the ship’s kabuise were also built on a frame of logs filled with sand because the ground around a logging camp was usually under a few feet of wood chips and sawdust. They were more than store rooms and served as a dining, sleeping and recreation centers. These lumber camps were referred to as “camboose camps”.

The first recorded use of a conductor using the last car in a train as a conductor’s lodging goes back to the 1840’s on the Auburn and Syracuse Railroad that ran from Syracuse, New York to the Erie Canal construction. It was a boxcar with the conductor’s flags, lanterns and tools stored in it. After that this practice became common and the last car on a freight train was called a way car, a crummy, a brake van or in Canada a cabin-van.

Crew cars were first used in Canada around 1859 on the Great Western Railway in Ontario. These conductor cars were put into service in response to complaints from train crews who rode on the roofs of freight cars listening for the engineer’s signal to put on the brakes. Probably not a nice job in forty below I’m thinkin’.

They were, as I said, just boxcars that conductors fitted with benches and wood stoves. The Northern Railway of Canada (later to become CNR) put seven “freight caboose cars” into action a year later and after that the name caboose seemed to stick. The design eventually evolved with a cupola added up top for better observation. There are dozens of variations in their design some of which had the sides of the cupola extended out wider than the car body for even better vision, kind of like a bay window in a house. Their cast iron stoves were bolted to the floor so you’d know immediately if you were looking at a caboose stove as it would have no legs and its doors would be double latching.
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Out on the western prairies the caboose was a very common sight and had multiple uses. A windowless cabin built over sleigh runners in winter hauled settlers, freight and school children to and from. Pioneer campers pulled by living engines (horses or oxen) were often equipped with a small stove. There is a lovely replica of a prairie caboose on display at the Remington Museum in Cardston where one can sit in, hold the horse reins and watch the road unfold before you on a screen.

I recall being stuck on the highway at the Corbin turnoff crossing many years ago waiting for a freight train. Because I was at the front of the line I happened to spot and hear a hot box (overheated axle bearing) on a car and as the caboose went by I hollered a warning to the conductor seated up in the cupola. There was no way he could have spotted in on that particularly windy piece of railway.

In 1985 both CPR and CNR applied to phase out cabooses replacing them with computerized boxes at the end of the freight train. They are known as End-of Train Information Systems (ETIS). Lights go on in the locomotive cab when a journal box overheats or there is a loss of pressure in a hydraulic line. So that pretty well put an end to tail-end monitoring and the caboose.

The first cabooseless train left Swift Current on December 14, 1989. The railway union saw that cabooselessness would eventually lead to conductorlessness and they were right. Wayne Grady put it succinctly when he stated in his book “Chasing the Chinook": “A freight train without a caboose seems endless, like a sentence without a period”.
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From one end of this country to the other you will find cabooses standing stationary as railway museum attractions, elaborately decorated rentable cabins or even small dining cars. In Pugwash, Nova Scotia one can dine at the Caboose Café, a way car nicely converted to a diner. In Tagamagouche, Nova Scotia their Train Station Inn and Railway Dining Car complex has no less than seven cabooses converted to deluxe accommodations with queen sized beds and fireplaces! Lethbridge’s 437083 wooden caboose on display on Stafford Drive was built in 1943 and was one of 52 cabooses retired in 1987 by CPR.

Adolph Hungrywolf, an expert in all things railroad and author of the spectacular Rails In the Rockies (1979), has four cabooses on his property, called Good Medicine Ranch at Skookumchuck Prairie. Both Adolph and his Blackfoot wife Beverly used cabooses as their offices. Incidentally, the Hungrywolf’s live off grid with no running water, telephone or electricity. Of the fifteen of his books he has published on rail history, one focuses specifically on cabooses and is entitled; “Off on a Wild Caboose Chase.” And yes his works were hand-typed on old Remington typewriters. No word processor here.
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I found this Carl Sandburg poem on the net called Caboose Thoughts that I found profound. It reads;
There will be accidents.
I know accidents are coming.
Smash-ups, signals wrong, washouts, trestles rotten,
Red and yellow accidents.
But somehow and somewhere at the end of the run
The train gets put together again
And the caboose and the green tail lights
Fade down the right of way like a new white hope.
Or how about this anonymous contemplation on plurals in the English language!
And consider the goose with its plural of geese;
Then a double caboose should be called a cabeese,
And noose should be neese and moose should be meese
And if mama’s papoose should be twins, it’s papeese.
Yes, I lament the loss of the caboose. It’s just not the same without that fancy red rail car with its prominent cupola and T-bone stove pipe sticking out as it slowly disappearing down the line at the end of the train.
Carl Sandburg
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February 5th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 5
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