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Chicago Great Western Caboose Paint Schemes

By Donald E. Vaughn

Before the advent of the electronic end of train (EOT) device, freight trains had a manned one, a caboose with at least a brakeman as an occupant. All railroads, large and small, utilized these cars that were at once maligned by crews and revered by railfans, and in the lingering memories of childhood, the brakeman always smiled and waived. Whether it was called a hack, a van, a crummy, a waycar, or any one of several other not so flattering terms, the caboose was an essential railroad tool. And contrary to public perception, the caboose at the end of each passing freight was not always red, especially on the CGW.

The Wood Cars

In the early days, the CGW caboose was given a coat of utilitarian, rather dull red or brown. This was a common usage for most railroads of the late 1800s. The color choice was simple economics. The paint was the same as that of the freight cars, whatever the builder or the railroad had on hand. It was cheaper for the railroads to use the same shades of paint readily available to farmers and merchants for painting their buildings and it was a safe bet that what worked well to protect a barn or store from the elements would also work well for a wooden railcar. Lettering was basic white; roofs, walkways and underframes, black (although the weathered canvas covering on wooden cars appeared grey on older photographs).

In those days, safety was considered the employees' responsibility. With neither government mandates nor financial motivation to reduce hazards, railroads saw no reason to paint steps or the vertical surfaces of ladders and grab irons in distinctive colors.

In the years between 1892 and the mid-1940s, the CGW caboose fleet saw no major revision to the paint scheme. Certainly, as accompanying photographs show, tinkering with the typeface or lettering scheme occurred, perhaps at the whim or artistic inspiration of the man behind the brush, but the overall look remained the same. At a time when railroads expended huge sums recruiting passengers, freight traffic served itself, due to the railroad's virtual monopoly of interstate commerce, and freight cars and cabooses continued to wear colors as drab as the work clothes of the men who served on them. It was not until the post-World War II boom, with increasing traffic and revenues, that railroads began to dress up their freight equipment.

Management also decided that these prosperous times were the right occasion to dieselize the road fleet. More style and color at the head end would eventually work its way back to the caboose, but the CGW would have to survive a depression and then cope with a world war.

While the CGW had been one of the first roads to look at and then embrace the internal-combustion engine, its early experiments were the doughty self-propelled M-300 of the 1920s and drab 1930s era Winton-engined, center cab switchers. Gas powered Baldwin-built No. 1 opened the way in 1925 for the diesel switchers that became the backbone of the CGW's yard fleets, but nothing about these hard-working locomotives inspired creative or colorful paint schemes. The caboose roster at this time consisted of veteran, mostly wooden cars that were faithfully following the roads freights and transfer runs. They were beginning to show their age, and were increasingly hazardous to the men who worked with them. Short of cash, the CGW had looked for replacements for these older and unsafe cars and obtained several short and stout cabs from the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range. These were short wooden cars, but they had been constructed for service on the heavy ore trains of the Iron Range. The little 30 footers, numbered 350 to 365 on the CGW, had been built with heavy underframes in 1910, then modified in the late 1920s with horizontal and angled straps to increase their strength. They remained in service well beyond their anticipated life span and then some, with their cupolas removed, soldiered on into the 1950s.

Enter the Steel Cars

World War II forced the CGW to defer the purchase of newer cabooses. The military and maritime demands for steel competed with the need for increased numbers of cabooses to handle wartime traffic and the CGW turned to its own devices and the ingenuity of its employees to meet the transportation crisis. The result was the conversion of a number of redundant boxcars into bay window cabooses. While the series 500-507 series cars never won awards for looks, they certainly did fill the void. These reluctant cabooses, rebuilt on turn of the century boxcar bodies of both AC&F and Pullman construction enabled the CGW to move the freight after their 1941 rebuilding in the railroad's Oelwein, Iowa shops. One very interesting notation, is that while most cabooses of the period had a canvas roof, these eight cars had a No. 8 Mule Hide covering. One can imagine the derision rear-end crew members endured from the engine crew when a 500-series caboose was listed on the manifest.

The fleet of wood cars lasted for a long time on the CGW. But, with postwar prosperity and new management in the person of President William N. Deramus III, major change was inevitable. Deramus was at that time the youngest man ever to head a Class I railroad and he was determined to move the CGW into this new era regardless of opposition. It seemed that people either liked or hated Bill Deramus, but he wasn't concerned about his popularity with the employees or the public. He was going to make the CGW a profitable railroad.

Part of Deramus' plan was to rebuild the CGW, literally from the ground up. Improvements included new track bed, heavier rails, and more modern facilities. Oelwein, Iowa received a rebuilt yard. There was a full-scale introduction of diesel-electric road locomotives (which came to be called motors) and an order for 25 new center cupola, all-steel cabooses from the Pullman-Standard Company. Cars 600-624 were placed into service in 1945 and 1946 and since they predated the initial introduction of the Electro-Motive Division (EMD) F-series diesel-electric locomotives by almost a year, they heralded the beginning of a new era for the CGW.

But the new cars received a paint scheme reminiscent of old. Boxcar, or oxide brown with a black roof and underframe and white lettering, they resembled the fleet they were intended to replace. The "Corn Belt Route" herald was painted directly upon the car side, centered between the cupola and the two windows on each side. The car number was centered below with twelve inch white numerals in Railroad Roman font. Other basic information was added to show builder's dates and Federal Regulation designated information in two inch letters of both Roman and Bold typefaces.

Considerations of safety were now apparent. The paint guide of 1943 shows that grab irons would be painted "Carhidell Gloss Yellow Enamel #34583" on all cabooses. Initial photographs of the steel 600 series cars do not show this option, so one must assume that they were delivered with, perhaps at best, white grab irons and painted later.

When the "motors" came soon afterward, the design group at Electro Motive Division convinced the CGW that only steam locomotives should be painted black. The diesel should be a flash of creative design and color to alert shippers and public alike that there was something new on the rails. On October 4, 1947, the first CGW EMD F's, numbered 101A, B, C appeared and a new look for the CGW caboose fleet was not far behind. The motors sported a bright maroon and red color scheme, accentuated by deluxe gold striping and gold or yellow lettering. With a roof of Brunswick green and running gear in black, the motors gave the fresh look of a reinvigorated railroad.

It seemed only natural to match the steel cabooses to the motors and so as time permitted, the CGW began to send them to the Darby Car Company in Kansas City for repainting and refurbishing. In a short while, the steel cabooses matched the locomotives they trailed on the freights of the CGW. There were some differences. The caboose roofs remained black. Handrails, ladders, and brake wheels received the high visibility deluxe gold/yellow for safety purposes. The striping as applied to the motors was closely followed on the cabooses with the added notion that the striping went all the way around the caboose instead of stopping six inches from the front and rear as on the cabless boosters and the flat ends of the cab units. Some of the older, wooden cars also received the newer treatments, most noticeably the handrail and yellow painted surfaces, but apparently none ever received the steel car's striping scheme. The most striking change was the Deramus-era "Lucky Strike" herald which began replacing the old "Corn Belt Route" emblem.

Previously, the white, 36" diameter "Corn Belt Route" logo had been painted on the wooden car bodies, with a smaller colored decal applied to the 600 series cars. This was the same emblem that was applied to the motors on the flanks, on the cabs beneath the windows and, on the boosters, centered on the sides between the red stripes. Over time, the wear and tear of daily use continued to show on the cabooses and motors. Bill Deramus, not wanting to waste a precious dollar, decreed that the middle stripe should not be maintained as a growing number of locomotives, passenger cars, and cabooses again required repainting. The "Corn Belt Route" herald was also completely retired and replaced by the "Lucky Strike" emblem. In a few more years, the standard logo became larger, the remaining red was removed from the sides of the motors and the lower stripe on the cabooses disappeared.

In 1954 the "maroon dip" phase began as motors, passenger cars, and cabooses cycled through Oelwein for routine maintenance. The remaining stripes and older markings disappeared and were replaced by black tops and maroon sides. The motors received a 24 inch nose herald and 36 inch side herald while the caboose fleet received either a small or larger one at the whim of the paint crew. For the cars that received the larger herald, a piece of sheet metal was cut to size, then the herald placed upon it and both riveted to the side of the caboose. For cars that received the smaller herald, all that was necessary was to center the decal and apply. At this time the CGW was repainting virtually everything that moved and so it was inevitable that shortages occurred. Crews were forced to improvise and there were deviations from standard appearance. Throughout all of these changes, the car numerals and data remained the same. The car numerals were in 2" bold typeface, above the end doors. Interiors were all painted a pale green with black Naugahide cushions. Most of the remaining wooden cabooses received at least a coat of the solid maroon paint and a "Lucky Strike" emblem plus deluxe gold numerals, ladders, and grab irons.

By this time wooden cars were relegated to branch line and local work and the steel cars held the high iron and the priority trains. The CGW needed modern cars, and the original twenty five would not be enough to cover the increasing traffic, so an order was placed with International Car in 1955 for ten new cabooses. This was another example of the CGW's willingness to experiment. For reasons of crew safety, cars 625 to 634 were of bay window design and sported roller bearing trucks.

Two cars, long thought to have been "test beds" for the bay window design, have in recent discovery been identified as another CGW example of cost-effective replacement. Cabooses 616 and 618 of the 1945 Pullman-Standard order followed the International Car Company order of 1955 as bay window cars when, in 1964, the 616 was showcased for the Traffic and Sales Departments' business meeting in Oelwein. The cupolas of both cars had been removed and all-weather cab window extensions, already in use on many of the CGW's road and yard switchers, gave the two the safer, more modern appearance. The 618 holds the distinction of being the sole bay window caboose on the CGW to retain its number on the center of the car body. All others, the 616 included, had the number moved to the left of center and under the emblem. The maroon scheme, as applied to most cars by this time, was the longest lasting scheme in the steel-car era. When EMD Model GP30 locomotives arrived in red and black in 1963, the caboose colors were changed to match. All other details remained the same, but the two "new" cars (616 and 618) had been recently repainted and so retained their maroon livery.

It was at this time that the railroad placed its final order for cabooses. In 1963, five additional cars of a bay window design, numbered 635-639 were ordered from the Thrall Car Company. They arrived in red and black. After the merger with the Chicago & North Western, the new managers began slowly renumbering and repainting equipment to C&NW colors, but many CGW cars, including the last five cabooses, retained the old looks because they were subject to an equipment trust. They were otherwise identical to their C&NW siblings.

The massive C&NW caboose rebuilding project of the 1980s meant the end of the individual identity of the former CGW cars. A few survive, as documented in Joe Piersen's article, "Ex CGW Cabooses on the C&NW," NWL, Fall 1985 (Vol. 12, No. 4). His roster shows that 616, one of the experiments, is now C&NW 10515. This car is in Clinton, Iowa in a riverside park with a "new" number of 51015 applied, for reasons unknown, after the car was moved. A number of the center cupola steel cars have also been saved. One is at Illinois Railway Museum at Union, Illinois, another at the National Railway Museum at Green Bay, Wisconsin, and a third was recently acquired by the Boone & Scenic Valley at Boone, Iowa. One of the bay window cars can be seen at Oelwein, Iowa at the Hub City Museum. If the numbers are correct, this is former CGW 6371, the C&NW number showing as 10536. This is significant, if for no other reason than that there are surviving cars from the first order for steel cars, a sample of the interim (616, at Clinton), and one of the last Thrall Cars. Using these, data and measurements can be obtained for the modeler, even though the 1980s C&NW rebuilding created some noticeable changes in the side panels and roof lines.

From new cars, cabooses inherited by merger, cars purchased on the second hand market, to boxcar rebuilds, the Chicago Great Western operated quite a mix of equipment during its lifetime. Some were bland and utilitarian, others quite unique, but all served the crews and the CGW well. The cabooses, be they red, maroon, brown, or a some faded approximation, may be gone from the rails, but memories remain. As a child, the author and siblings waved countless times to rear end crews from the baggage cart at the Fort Dodge depot as the manifest or local passed en route to their terminals. Kids still wave at the rear of passing trains, but an EOT device will never replace the smile and outstretched arm of a friendly brakeman in a caboose.