A Peculiar Accident

Feb 23, 2018


A caboose was traditionally the last car on a train. They were first used in the 1830s to house the crew. It was originally a shed built on a flatcar. The origin of the name is uncertain, but one explanation connects the term to the sea.

The galley on a ship was often referred to by the Dutch word “kombuis.” This is a logical connection since the caboose included a kitchen for the crew. The kitchen bore a resemblance to the galley on a ship, since the stove was bolted to the floor and had a lip around the top to prevent pans from sliding off.

The crew that traveled in the caboose was needed to inspect the train for problems such as shifting loads or broken equipment. If the train stopped, they would stand behind it waving lanterns to warn an approaching train to slow down. A cupola was added to the caboose in 1863. This allowed a crewman to ride in the cupola and act as lookout.

On this date in 1905, the Wahpeton Times reported on a peculiar railroad accident that occurred the day before. It happened on the Thief River branch of the Great Northern Railway. The train was running at a high speed when the caboose jumped the track and broke loose from the train. It did two complete somersaults end over end before coming to rest in a ditch. Amazingly, conductor P.C. Keely and the two brakemen in the caboose were not seriously injured, suffering only a few scratches. The train continued down the track for a mile before the engineer could bring it to a stop. As he backed the train up, he expected to find three dead crewmen. He was relieved to find them shaken, but alive and well.

A caboose and a full crew were required on freight trains in both the United States and Canada until the 1980s. By that time, the technology had advanced allowing railroads to reduce the number of crewmen to save money. The laws requiring a caboose were changed, and the caboose began to fade from use and are rarely seen today.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Wahpeton Times. “Caboose Overturned.” 23 February 1905. Wahpeton, ND. Page 1.

Union Pacific Railway. “A Brief History of the Caboose.” https://www.up.com/aboutup/history/caboose/index.htm  Accessed 30 December 2017.