A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

October 1998

A Caboose of Our Own

By J. A. Phillips, III

White River Valley Museum's caboose NP 1394 is based on prototypes of the Northern Pacific Railway. Changes were made in the design to fit in the available Museum space.

However, before we go into the building of our caboose, lets talk cabooses in general...


This Albert Farrow photograph was used extensively for research purposes while designing and building the caboose at White River.


Function of Cabooses
The caboose was at its heart a safety device. In its heyday, one of the primary functions of the caboose was to serve as a backup on the train's air brake line. A gauge mounted on the center of the cupola wall showed how much compressed air was in the line. Should the gauge fail, the conductor or brakeman, riding the caboose, could apply the brakes and stop the train.

The caboose was also a vantage point to watch out over the train. As a long train winds its way around curves, the conductor and brakemen in the caboose could look ahead for signs of trouble. At night, this might take the form of stuck brake shoes glowing red hot - a serious fire hazard. In daylight, a crew might watch for the smoke produced by stuck brakes. Also, a good crew would open the windows and smell for hot grease or smoke.

In addition to its safety functions, the caboose was also the conductor's office. In the 1920s, one of the conductor's primary duties was to oversee the safe operation of the train. The engineer, on the other hand, was responsible for the operation of the locomotive. The conductor made sure that all the tools of the trade were aboard the caboose - spare air hose, fusees [flares,] lanterns, flags, forms, spare brake and coupler parts, grease for lubricating, oil or coal for their stove, drinking water...an almost endless list of things big and small required to get a train over the road.

When a problem such as a hotbox was encountered, the conductor and brakemen were often responsible for repairing it en route. "When a hotbox broke into flame," writes Warren McGee, "it would take at least 55 minutes to cool it, re-brass it, and repack it. If you could catch it before then, you might fix it in 20 minutes." The brass and grease used to make such repairs were carried in the caboose. A hotbox out on the line meant a delay not only for the train itself, but potentially to opposing and trailing trains as well. With all crews subject to Federal rules regulating service hours, this sort of delay could cause a crew to "die on the hours". If that happened the railway had the additional problem of getting a new crew out to take over the stranded train.

Before the widespread use of computers, much of the business of the railroad was carried out in the field - aboard the caboose. The busy traffic through the Auburn Yard generated a considerable amount of paperwork. Each car on a train had a waybill - a written summary of the identity of each car in the train, what was in that car, who shipped it and who is receiving it. The conductor would spend a great deal of time filling out waybills and making sure everything was in order.

In addition, the conductor was given orders on what trains he had the right of way over, or had to stop for. These train orders were nicknamed "flimsies" for the thin tissue paper they were typed on. All of this work was carried out at the conductor's desk, aboard the caboose.

Bunks, storage for clothing, food and tools, a toilet and sink and stove provided a home away from home for the conductor and brakemen. Until the late1960s, the Northern Pacific and other railroads assigned cabooses to specific conductors, and they often took on some character traits of the individual conductors. Some were decorated with posters and pictures from magazines, others were all business with home-made shelves and storage devices. To spot their cars in the busy, crowded railroad yards, some conductors took to adding very personal touches. Conductor Hall cut an "H" out of sheet metal and mounted it on a mast off the top of his caboose, for easy recognition, Conductor Hatton mounted a top hat on his caboose. Other conductors chose symbols from playing cards - diamonds and clubs for example.

Northern Pacific Cabooses
The Northern Pacific received its first caboose models in the 1870s, when the rail line was not yet completed between Lake Superior and Puget Sound. The first cabooses were literally little more than boxcars with windows and a roof walk - no end platforms or cupola. After the turn of the century the NP built three variations of a 26-foot caboose in its own shops, a group of boxcar cabooses , and a 19-foot four wheel caboose (these were outlawed shortly after completion and had to be rebuilt.) Finally, about 1907 the NP settled on a 24-foot wood design that became the trademark of its caboose fleet. This was the model for the museum's NP 1394.

As locomotives and cars became larger and heavier, steel center sills on cabooses were required by law to ensure the safety of crews. The Northern Pacific bought its first batch of steel center sill cars in 1921, and most of the 24-foot caboose fleet was eventually rebuilt with steel underframes in the 1920s.


Conductor's desk in Northern
Pacific Caboose  #1266,
Livingston, Montana. 
Photo courtesy Ken Johnsen.

This reinforcement of the car's design was particularly necessary across Stampede Pass. Eastbound freight trains would stop at Lester to take on one or two rear-end helper engines, in addition to the road engine at the head of the train. This meant placing a large Mallet-type locomotive ahead of the caboose, and perhaps even another behind the caboose, if the train was heavy enough to warrant it. A caboose sandwiched by two rumbling Mallet helpers became known on Stampede Pass as "one in and one on." Anything less than a steel center sill might quickly reduce a caboose to kindling when the powerful locomotives started pushing.

On the outside of the caboose, the Northern Pacific set standards which we endeavored to follow. For example, the lettering painted on the caboose signifies its recent maintenance. Twelve shops around the old Northern Pacific system carried out the repairs, and marked the cars with a date and shop mark. For example, "ST" stood for South Tacoma. Auburn was "AU." Shops would update the car's service information by painting it directly over the car's standard metallic brown and black underframe paint scheme. The road name was spelled out in four-and-a-half inch letters on a letterboard just beneath the roofline. (The Monad, the ying-yang trademark the NP became known for, and its script "Main Street of the Northwest" slogan, was not painted on the caboose fleet until May, 1951.) The car's number was painted in four-and-a-half-inch numbers centered on the side of the car and 18 inches above the bottom of the side. The car numbers were repeated over both doors in three-inch high numbers. The car's rebuild date was painted on the doors themselves. On the side of the long end of the car would be a paint stencil showing when the car was painted, at what shop, and with what paint (PK for Parker, SW for Sherwin Williams), on the side of the short end would be a re-pack date for the car's journals (the box-like opening on the wheel sets containing the journal bearing). The air brake cylinder beneath the car was stenciled with its overhaul date and its most recent test date.

The interior of the caboose is a myriad of things designed to make it a living space, safe workplace, and storage space, all of which we had to rearrange to fit within our shortened caboose. The cupola forward and rear-facing cupola windows did not open and were barred to prevent the crew from being thrown from the car, or hit by debris, during an emergency stop. Each side of the cupola had a "monkey pole" running from the bottom of the cupola seat area to the roof of the car. It served as an added hand-hold for employees. The lockers beneath the cupola seats were divided into an ice-cooled refrigerator on one side, and a sheet metal lined locker for oil lamps on the other.

In a wood caboose, fire prevention was an important concern. Thus, above each lamp in the car was a metal deflector, which served as a heat shield to prevent fires. The stove, used for heating and cooking was surrounded above, below and beside by metal flashing - another fire protection device. (The White River caboose has a real caboose stove, donated by Winnie Dinwiddie.)

Another concern was with the safety of employees when the car was on the move. In addition to the monkey poles and hand grabs of the cupola, sharp vertical corners in the caboose were covered and padded with horsehair-stuffed bumpers.

Another consideration was storage and saving space. The conductor's desk provided a place to handle the train's paperwork, and had drawers for yet more equipment and blank forms. (Our desk will obtain its drawers this winter.) Under every bunk was a storage locker for all manner of railroad equipment. Above the bunks were space-saving devices, the most common of which was a fold-down table hinged to the caboose wall. (This is also planned to be built this winter.) Other cabooses featured fold-down bunks. As a rule the car's toilet was not used. It lacked running water, which meant that any employee who used it would have to carry buckets of water to wash it out. In addition, it emptied directly onto the wheels below, and could result in a somewhat malodorous workplace. Many crews put a piece of wood over the top of the toilet and filled the space with materials to fix hotboxes.



Interior showing sink, bunks and hoop in 
Northern Pacific Caboose #1266,
Livingston, Montana.
Photo courtesy Ken Johnsen.

A Caboose of Our Own
Adding a caboose to the White River Valley Museum's 1920s Auburn exhibit area was conceived of by museum director Patricia Cosgrove as a way of showing the importance of railroads and railroading in the community's heritage. Rails first came to Auburn in the early 1880s as the Northern Pacific reached out from Tacoma for Seattle. Later, in 1900, the Northern Pacific built the Palmer Cut-Off from Auburn to Kanaskat, making the small farming community the jump-off point for the Northern Pacific's main line to the east. Finally in 1913, the Northern Pacific opened a roundhouse and yard in Auburn, transforming it from an agricultural based community into the quintessential railroad town. As Dr. Mel Sinex said, "every business in town knew that when the yard whistle blew on payday that it was going to be a good weekend."

Building a caboose from scratch turned out to be no small effort. Curator of Collections Tina Brewster-Wray was assigned the job of managing the caboose construction. First, a suitable prototype had to be selected and researched. For this information, Tina turned to two local caboose owners, Dr. Kenneth G. Johnsen, and Amtrak veteran Rick Leach. Ken and Rick have been researching NP cabooses for years, and have amassed a wealth of knowledge about the details of NP cabooses. Both are sticklers for accuracy. With the help of fellow NP caboose owner Bob Makins, they supplied the plans, photographs and information necessary to build a caboose from the ground up. A visit to Ken Johnsen's caboose provided a wealth of information about the interior details, as well as much of the appropriate paint information.

Rick Leach provided the stenciling examples which were later used to letter and number the car. The number of our caboose replica, NP 1394, was chosen by Rick. The authentic 1394 was a caboose assigned to Western Washington, and was destroyed in a wreck in the later 1920s. As Rick says, "It's a number that will stop any grumbling from caboose purists - as its very hard to prove or disprove anything about that particular car."

After the data was collected, exhibit designer Susan Hernday "imagineered" a caboose which would both fit in the space the museum had available, and still appear as an appropriate representation.

Once the exterior and interior details had been settled and drawn up, it was time to find the pieces and put the caboose exhibit together. To support the caboose construction efforts, the Auburn Rotary donated $8,000 to the Museum - quite a contrast from the $621.45 the Northern Pacific spent in 1908 to build it's cars!

Wheel sets (trucks) and rail were acquired with the help of Curator Richard Anderson of the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie. Originally made for a Canadian road, the caboose trucks are the appropriate size and style for a 1920s caboose. The trucks presented both a suitable base to build on, as well as a multifaceted challenge for the Museum's all volunteer construction crew. Height was an issue, so the railroad ties which we used were two by tens, stained and applied directly to the floor. The rail was then set in place, and the real challenges began.

The first challenge was how to get the trucks - which weigh 1,500 pounds per axle - from the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie to the White River Valley Museum in Auburn. This was accomplished by Frank Shaughnessy, a powerful truck and fork lift courtesy of Shaughnessy & Co., a boom truck loaned from Venture Construction, and the helping hands of many volunteers - all under the watchful eye of Sidewalk Superintendent, Tom Chapman.

Frank Shaughnessy drove to Snoqualmie to inspect and pick up the trucks and rail. He delivered them outside the museum. Once they arrived, the next challenge fell to White River exhibit renovation's "Supply Sergeant," as Patricia Cosgrove likes to say, John Meneghini and fellow-volunteer Steve Fallert. The trucks had been exposed to the weather for many years and had to be disassembled down to their axles. Fallert and Meneghini removed all the woodwork, cleaned the moss and muck from the steel, and with the help of the Parks Department steam cleaning, generally got them ship-shape for use in the exhibit. Once the trucks had been cleaned and disassembled, the sole challenge was to find a way to get them from the outdoor work area, through the recently narrowed backdoor into the museum, and onto the awaiting rails. When asked how they accomplished this feat, John states with a smile, "We manhandled those things!" The disassembled trucks were swung to the door with a boom truck - put onto a set of jury rigged dollies and rolled into position - then levered off, perfectly onto the rails. The volunteers then reassembled them in place. In all, the work on the trucks had spanned a period of several months.

At this point, Ed Montry's carpentry crew took over. Working under Ed's supervision were many volunteers including Cliff Bond, Steve Fallert, Paul Schorr, Dr. Mel Sinex, Fred Sparhawk, Ernie Thomas, Paul Thompson, and of course, John Meneghini. "It was our pride and joy," Meneghini states. "Ed really knew what he was doing - he was a leader," says John. The team of nine "put heart and soul in it," he recalls. Meneghini's comment that "We weren't carpenters, but we are now!" is a feeling shared by Mel Sinex. "I got to use tools I'd never have used otherwise - table saws, pneumatic hammers! It was an opportunity I'm sure glad I didn't miss."

"How many people have had the opportunity to help construct an entire caboose?" asks Mel. "My best recollections will be the fact that I got to meet and work with not only new people, including Ed Montry, but then work with my old friends like John Meneghini and Steve Fallert. They were all just real faithful and dedicated - they were here to do what had to be done. John would get the materials, which allowed the experienced carpenters -- who were all volunteers - from having to take the time to do that. I would come along and we would go to find certain types of paneling, certain types of nails, molly screws, things I'd never looked for. I've hung a few pictures in my house and office, but the type of things we did in the whole museum exhibit was something I'd never gotten a chance to do... How would I have ever met all these people if I'd just stayed home?"

For Tina Brewster-Wray, the difference was in the details. "It was great fun talking to people like Rick Leach and Ken Johnsen about details and experiences they'd had in putting together their cabooses. Seeing a real caboose about halfway through the process really helped visualize what was going on... Seeing the whole interior appearance - which areas were painted yellow, vs. red-brown, and what it was supposed to look like when it got there helped immeasurably. The caboose owners take these things to the nth degree. Ken even had Morely buttons fired and re-enameled to the appropriate color for the cushions. Whenever we could, we followed their example. By the way, the lettering on the back of those cushions is perfect."

"One of the most satisfying aspects of it was the last bit of stenciling - putting the Northern Pacific up there. I made several trial runs. The first time I just cut out the stencils from ordinary paper and put them in place with spray glue. People warned me about spray paint, so I tried rollers and brushes. I ended up melting the paper, sticking stuff to the caboose wall, having it run out or bleed underneath. The next attempt was to cut the stencils out of shelf paper, but it still ran a bit. Then I put spray glue on the back of the shelf paper and developed a roller technique where you only put small amounts of paint on the roller and then apply two or three coats.

The day I finally applied the lettering I'd been working for 12 hours. Here I was on top of a 12- or 15-foot high ladder, with all the lights hanging down around me. I took off the stenciling and it looked perfect the first time! I was jumping up and down with all the energy I had left."

A spirit of good citizenship and comradery affected more than just the volunteers of the carpentry crew. In addition to the Auburn Rotary, Frank Shaughnessy, Venture Construction, and Shaughnessy and Co. many local businesses responded to the entire exhibit renovation in a positive way. "The water cooler, sink, coal box, and the sheeting around the stove was all done by Auburn Sheet Metal," says Tina. "Dave Treat their owner, volunteered all the material and labor. Two Auburn Sheet Metal employees, Steve Drake and Rob Miller came and installed all the pieces." Miller Fabrication, which started in Ballard in 1969 and moved to Auburn in 1986, donated all the steel work.

"When White River started the caboose they called and asked for a bid, they thought they'd have to pay for it," says Jerry Miller with a chuckle. "We donated all the heavy steel, bending it to their specifications. All ten of us worked on it at some point. It took perhaps 160 hours of time, all told."

"We did it because we felt that it would be something our grandchildren could go and look at...all the steel work on this caboose was donated by my grandfather. It's a legacy we're leaving behind for the heirs that come along."

And so White River built a caboose. Now education programs are being designed in which groups of children hear railroading stories aboard the caboose. They receive a free ticket to return to the museum with their family, at which time our docents suggest they climb up into the cupola and look for hotboxes, and you know, they do.

J. A. Phillips, III