I was approached by a Conservation Club wrestling with the decision on whether or not to restore or renovate a 1920’s era railway caboose on their property. The issue of “original intent of design” arose and I began researching the history of railway car engineering. This became the pre-design information that would prove beneficial to understanding the issue at hand and asking the appropriate questions: How much will it cost to restore this caboose? Why are the ceilings so low? Why are the window sills and headers so low in the floor-to-ceiling dimension? How would raising the ceiling affect the overall look? etc.
My research led me to the American Rail Car Encyclopedia – 1930 edition, a fascinating look into the construction methods And mentality of pre-Depression industrialism in America. I quickly learned that the caboose was a riding car for passengers; they didn’t need much head room, the windows were low because the passengers would be sitting. This information helped maintain the aesthetic of the interior; the windows were large compared to the lower ceiling height and the low ceiling made the cab feel cozy. Back in the day the wood stove would have heated that volume. The cupola had a total of 8 windows so the entire space was sky light as long as the sun was shining, it also had a raised balconette with seats. The lucky passengers riding up there would have a view in every direction.
These rail cars are still standing today because of the American “over-build” mindset of the 1920’s. Our caboose was constructed of heavy iron parts that were molded in a large foundry near Lansing, MI in 1924. The heavy iron frame rests on the wheel trucks and supports the heavy 5″ x 8″ timber deck frame, which in turn supports the (actual) 2″ x 4″ stud walls which are tied from top to bottom to the frame by 3/4″ iron tie-rods, strategically placed to prevent wracking when the train begins to move. The encyclopedia claims that these types of cars weigh around 60,000 pounds and are “light-weight” when compared to the heavier freight cars. This gave me a whole new respect for the people of that time and for the scale of their “all-growth” mindset.
After sizing up the extent and effort required in the demolition process, the conversation quickly turned away from restoration and toward renovation. This was a huge first step in the right direction. My client then felt tempted to change the proportions of the caboose to make it more comfortable, like raising the ceilings to 8′. The only two arguments I brought against that notion were: Changing the proportions will make it look like a trailer home, and we would loose the ‘quaint’ look of the caboose. That was all it took.
The overall look and feel of the caboose will stay the same but the material and methods will be much lighter and way cheaper. The enigma of that era will live on in museums but it’s usefulness and practicality are gone from us which isn’t so sad considering the amount of coal burned, creosote poured, and who knows what other toxic chemicals used to keep the trains rolling. I hope the trucking and cargo container industries are more efficient, but they’ll never match the Romanticism of the Railroad.