Bringing up the rear: The colourful caboose and its crew

Just in Time local history series

By Ian McKechnie

CP Rail locomotive no. 8168 guides a caboose across Queen Street, Lindsay, at some point in the 1970s. Image courtesy Kawartha Lakes Public Library.
Conductor Harold Hawkins (left) and brakeman Weston Reid (right) pose on C.N.R. caboose no. 78770 in Danforth Yard (Toronto) after bringing a freight train down from Lindsay, 1958. Image courtesy Jason Whiteley.

On the night of Nov. 13, 1923, a westbound passenger train enroute from Port Hope to Lindsay was approaching the Grand Trunk Railway storage sidings east of the Scugog River, where crews had been busy shunting empty freight cars into position. The work was risky at the best of times; the fog hovering over town this particular evening made the task much more challenging.

Shortly before 6:20 p.m., the westbound train crashed into the shunting engine at high speed, killing locomotive fireman J.H. Peck and giving engineer George Hannivan a severe shaking up. The force of the impact was such that a caboose trailing the shunting engine decoupled and rolled towards Lindsay, its speed increasing as it hurtled across the iron bridge. “It shot across the Lindsay Street crossing with the speed of a racehorse,” reported the Lindsay Daily Post, “and as it passed the station, Yardmaster Jack O’Keefe made a leap, mounted the steps and brought the caboose to a standstill.”

100 years have passed since that fateful evening, and the caboose has long since vanished from the nation’s railways – and with the passing of the years, it may well disappear from the public consciousness, as well. Few people younger than 40 have living memory of these charming old vehicles. (There are a pair of them on display in Lindsay’s Memorial Park, among other places.)

So what function did the caboose serve, and who worked in them?

Known colloquially as a cabin car, crummy, doghouse, hack, or van, the caboose played a vital role in local railway operations for more than a century. Most were equipped with a cupola, from which the train crew could watch for any shifting loads or “hotboxes” (overheated axle bearings) on the railcars in front of them. The caboose carried tools and equipment required for any enroute repairs; a cookstove, table, and cushioned benches also made it an ideal place to take a coffee break or have lunch. When track switches had to be thrown manually, the platform at the rear of the caboose offered a convenient (if dangerous) place to board the slow-moving train as it moved from one spur or siding to another, picking up and setting off freight cars.

From a desk in the caboose, the conductor was responsible for preparing vital paperwork about what the train was carrying and where the various freight cars were destined. He also oversaw the train’s movements, utilizing flags or lanterns to communicate with his colleagues in the locomotive.

Working alongside the conductor in the caboose was the tail-end brakeman, who perhaps had one of the most dangerous tasks of all. Until the first decade or so of the 20th century, brakemen had to walk along the top of moving trains, setting brakes on individual cars by hand. With the advent of the Westinghouse air brake, the brakeman’s responsibilities largely shifted to setting handbrakes while a train was at rest, coupling and uncoupling cars, and throwing track switches.

All of these tasks could result in injury to life or limb, and the local press is replete with tales of brakemen who met their fate while on the job. John Campbell, a Scottish-born brakeman working out of Lindsay, was struck by a train and killed on Nov. 13, 1908, while coupling cars together in the G.T.R.’s Orillia yards. “‘Scotty,’ as he was familiarly called, was a general favourite with the local employees of the G.T.R.,” the Lindsay Post reported a week later. “He was a model young man, sober and industrious, and of a genial disposition.” Tragedy struck again in 1914, when Wilbert F. Sucee, a Lindsay-based brakeman, was crushed to death when the caboose he was riding through the G.T.R. yards at Midland crashed into a string of coal cars. Only 27 years old, Sucee left behind a wife and a four-year-old daughter.

Faced with these risks, local brakemen frequently became front-line advocates for better compensation. “As a freight brakeman, I worked in the month of December 31 days, ten hours a day, or thirty-one hundred miles,” noted an unnamed letter-writer in the July 21, 1910 issue of the Watchman Warder. “For this,” he remarked unhappily, “the rate of pay is $1.90 per hundred miles, or 19 cents per hour, amounting to $58.90 for the month – truly a ‘large’ salary for 31 days for ten hours a day at an occupation that cripples and kills so many of our men.”

Life would become marginally easier for brakemen as time passed – especially as improvements were made to their rolling office.

An editorial in the July 12, 1966 edition of the Lindsay Daily Post noted that Canadian National was undertaking a plan to update its fleet of cabooses. Shock-absorbing underframes and upholstered chairs were among the anticipated improvements. “Refrigeration and radio telephones are other electrical innovations scheduled to pamper the boys who bring up the rear,” noted the Post.

But the end was quite literally in sight. In 1988, the Canadian Transport Commission authorized both the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railways to replace their cabooses with end-of-train devices, which marked off the rear of a train and measured brake pressure. Like the tracks on which it rolled, the colourful caboose and its crew would soon vanish from Kawartha Lakes.

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