Bringing up the Rear Burlington Northern Cabooses in the Twin Ports
This month we look back to an era in railroading when cabooses were still used on each and every train. In Duluth and Superior no railroad had a more colorful fleet of cabooses than did Burlington Northern (BN). Formed by the merger of four major railroads and several smaller subsidiaries, BN started out on March 2, 1970, with exactly 1,060 cabooses from these former lines. In the Twin Ports those cars came primarily from merger roads Great Northern (GN) and Northern Pacific (NP). These made up the bulk of the cars used in yard, transfer, and local service. Regional service cars operating between Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin came mostly from GN and NP but a handful of them came from Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q) and Spokane, Portland & Seattle (SP&S). Subsidiary cars from Colorado and Southern (C&S) and Fort Worth and Denver (FW&D) made it into town less frequently.
The BN’s original yard office was a series of buildings that GN cobbled together in 1945 at 17th Street and Elmira Avenue. Shown above, this was the nerve center for trains arriving and departing from Superior. Road and local service cabooses were parked on the east side of the yard office waiting for their next turn out of town or across town on a transfer run. This view was taken looking south from the old Belknap Street viaduct. That’s the old 21st Street viaduct in the background. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
At the time of the BN merger more than half of the former lines’ cabooses were of a wooden car body design. BN 10865 is shown here in front of the 17th Street yard office at Superior in July 1976. Note the stencil near the left end of the car. This is former NP 1632 and was assigned to yard transfer service operating out of Superior. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
The NP’s wooden car design dated back to 1921. A total of 390 similar 24-foot long cars operated system wide with several dozen being assigned to work out of Duluth and Superior. NP 1741 was a regular visitor to the Ports and was renumbered to BN 10953 after the merger. Prior to the arrival of the steel cars it ran on freights between Duluth and St. Paul. Later, and on BN, it was assigned to yard service operating out of Rice’s Point yard where it is seen in this image on February 9, 1964. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
BN 10866, shown here at Rice’s Point in July 1976, wore number NP 10639 prior to the merger. Many of these older cars received the full BN paint job of Cascade Green with yellow ends and white lettering and logo. Some received the green and yellow paint but just the initial and number, or a logo with no road name. A handful escaped the green paint altogether ending their service lives wearing their old NP paint with a simple renumbering. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
The caboose was the natural gathering point for the men working in train service. This is the Lakso Crew with their car NP 1741 on July 6, 1963. Cabooses were assigned to specific trains and even to specific conductors depending on the era. That’s Conductor Lakso standing in the middle. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
The conductor performed most of his work from inside of his caboose. His responsibilities were many. There was always paperwork to do to. Everything had to be properly recorded. He ran the job and instructed his crew on what to do and how to do it. Even the engineer listened to his instructions. Each caboose was outfitted with a desk for the conductor and eventually, a radio, though that wasn’t a given until the 1960s. There was also a small toilet closet, a coal or oil fired stove used to both heat the car’s interior and to cook meals, storage for crew baggage, hand tools, fuel, water, oil, and train supplies. There was usually a pair of rudimentary bunks too, where crew members could catch a nap when necessary. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)