new question (N&W Caboose Markers)

NW Mailing List nw-mailing-list at
Mon Feb 22 10:21:36 EST 2016

Kenneth, et al:

Sets of oil markers were "assigned to" (well, kept on) each caboose. No
matter what crew climbed on, the markers were there. There was no need to
carry them to the caboose for each run.

The markers were kept on a shelf built into the steps up to the cupola.
Here's how things were laid out, and the description applies to both sides
of the caboose.

1. At floor level, there was a "locker" (two wooden doors hinged at the
sides and closed by a spring-loaded snap clasp with a quarter-turn knob)
where the spouted oil can was kept for lamp oil. Many of the older cabooses
had a large sheet metal tray (about 2 inches deep) in which the can set.
The tray was provided for catching spilled oil. As I recall, the tray had
several "sections" built into it, probably to keep the oil can from sliding
around during severe slack action. The tray was large, and pretty much
filled up the whole floor space of the little "locker," and could be pulled
out by sliding it out on the floor. I rooted a lot of these lockers and
found copious numbers of spare brass "burners" (wick risers) stored there,
from years before.

2. Above the floor-level "locker" was smaller "locker" (same arrangement:
hinged doors closed by a snap clasp at the middle) in which was kept the
coffee pot and "condiments" like sugar, salt, and a few eating utensils.

3.) Third up on the tier was an open space (no doors) where the markers
were set when not in use. Do you remember that there was one "long step up"
when climbing up into the cupola? That long step was this area. The bottom
of it was about chest height. I just measured a set of N&W markers and they
are 15 inches high, so this step was probably 18 to 20 inches. Above this
area for storing the markers was a little wooden deck on which one's feet
rested while riding in the cupola.

I never saw any electric markers on the N&W until the 1970s, when storage
batteries (located under one of the bunks and charged by a generator driven
by an axle belt) were installed on some cabooses. These " electric markers"
were simply fabricated sheet metal boxes bolted under the roof sheets at
the four corners of the caboose. One side had a small red plano-convex lens
about 1.75 inches in diameter, which faced the rear. I don't recall whether
the lenses were glass or Lexan. A circular rubber weather seal grommet was
interposed between the lens and the sheet metal, and the the lens was
retained in place from the inside of the box by a metal retaining ring
secured by two small sheet metal screws. The bottom of the box (i.e. the
downward facing surface) was a sheet of Lexan about 0.25 inch thick and
frosted on one side, if I remember correctly. This Lexan provided a
downward facing source of illumination for the rear platform area of the
caboose, and that was marginally helpful when catching a moving caboose in
the darkness. The Lexan sheet was hinged on one edge and retained with a
thumb actuated spring clip, so that it could be dropped down for lamp
replacement. The lamp was positioned so that its base pointed upward. A
three-position selector switch was placed inside the caboose so that the
markers could be illuminated on one end or the other, or extinguished
entirely. These "electric markers" were really pretty cheezy. I think the
electrical system installed on the cabooses was a 12 volt system and the
lamps were standard 12 volt bayonet base used in automotive work. Keeping
the batteries charged was always a problem, and the Shaffers Crossing Cab
Track was equipped with a portable charger for charging the batteries while
the cabooses were on the Cab Track.

At the same time the generator and electric markers were installed, an
electric lamp was placed over the Conductor's "seat" (i.,e. area on the
bunk cushion,) where he sat to write up his CR-10 Wheel Report. On any N&W
caboose, you can always tell where this area was due to the presence of
another "locker" built into the wall, which held pads of blank forms (Delay
Reports, Register Checks, CR-10 sheets, telegram blanks and form G-4 memo
pads, etc.) Most cabooses also had an old cigar box in this locker where
spare pencils and the like were kept, and after rubber stamps for the
preparation of Time Slips were introduced in 1963 or 1964, the cigar box
also contained a small stamp pad.

At the time this electrification was done, a small fixture was installed
for illumination of the air gage in the cupola. The lamp was a "miniature"
size screw base (same thread as the bulb for a trainman's electric lantern)
12 volt lamp. It was mounted in a standard steel electrical box 3 x 4 x
2.25 inches. The box was covered with a standard stamped steel face plate
having two openings. One opening was for the the electric snap switch, and
the other was for a cute little 7/8 inch, threaded turret or dome which had
an opening on one side, such that it could be twisted to orient the beam of
light toward the air gage. Photo available upon request.

One final thing was added during the electrification of cabooses: two
downward-facing ceiling lights, one in each end of the caboose. They were
exactly the same light fixtures that had been used down the aisles of
passenger coaches: a dome-shaped cast glass cover, set in a polished
aluminum bezel and closed with a set screw at one end. The entire
assemblies measured 4.5" wide by 10" long by 2" thick. The "frosting" on
the glass was not sand blasted or etched; it was simply a translucent white
paint. Again, photo available upon request.

I do not recall any of the wooden cabooses having been equipped with
electric; it was only the more modern steel cabooses.

There was an earlier period (mid- to late-1960s) when some of the steel
cabooses had been experimentally equipped with Propane gas for heating and
illumination, but that was a rather short-lived experiment. The propane
tank under these cabooses was considered dangerous by those who worked on
them. The lamps were extremely hot and made the cabooses uncomfortably
warm. To carburate the fuel, the lamps used a clay-covered gauze hat-like
"mantle" made in Canada, and these things were notoriously fragile, were
difficult to light and were constantly breaking.

One final set of memories, which should be recorded while there is still
loving memory... After getting water and ice, sweeping the floor and making
sure the kerosene lamp over the Conductor's writing area was filled, the
Flagman's first thought was for "wiping down" the cupola seats on both
sides, to rid them of coal dust from the previous trip. If you forgot, and
the Conductor climbed up into a dirty cupola seat, you heard about it! It
was during this preparation period that the Flagman also filled and hung
his markers, although oil markers were dispensed with shortly before I

Now, which side of the caboose did the Conductor ride on? The Flagman
ALWAYS asked the Conductor, "Which side do you want, Cap'tn?" and he would
always tell you "the river side" or "the mountain side." The Conductor
usually wanted the Flagman to ride on "the river side" so that he could
watch the train, on the assumption that the Flagman would be in the cupola
more than the Conductor, who spent a significant part of his time "on the
cushions" writing up his Train Book and his Wheel Report. "River side" and
"mountain side" were, of course, Radford Division nomenclatures; I have
forgotten how the two sides were designated on the Norfolk and Shenandoah

I am attaching a photo from S. Kip Farrington's 1945 work, Railroading from
the Rear End. The photo shows Radford Division Conductor Jerry E. Sink, of
Roanoke, at work on his Train Book and CR-10 Wheel Report while on Train
No. 99. I think Sink was about a 1916 man, or so. He was one of the pall
bearers at my Grandfather's funeral in January 1936. The arrangement of the
oil lamp shown above his writing area is interesting for two reasons.
First, I never saw an N&W oil lamp with a shade around the glass globe.
Second, by the time I came around, all lamps were screwed to the wood above
the bunk, not mounted in front of the horse-hair cushion as shown in the

A concluding remark. I have been on and ridden on cabooses of most of the
major railroads in this country. Some of them (notoriously, the PRR "cabin
cars") were obviously designed by a person who had never in his life set
foot on a caboose, were inconvenient, clumsy and overtly dangerous in some
of their features and appointments. But the N&W cabooses were perfectly
laid out in every respect, and could not have been improved upon. The steps
and grab irons could not have been better laid out for the safety of a man
catching a moving caboose. The overhead pipe running longitudinally down
the length of an N&W caboose was a life saver (many railroads split this
into two overhead pipes, one at each end, with none in the area of access
to the cupola.) The steps up into the cupola could not have been more
safely or conveniently arranged. And the N&W cabooses (at least the wooden
ones) "rode quieter" than those of any other road - they did not give a
headache-inducing constant roar when in motion. But then, would one have
expected anything less from the Road of Precision Transportation?

-- abram burnett

Sent to You from my Telegraph Key
... better than AT&T 4G LTE

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