Caboose Gallery

The Hudson Valley Rail Trail Caboose Gallery in Highland began its second summer of operation on Memorial Day weekend. Housed in a 1926 caboose and located alongside the Rail Trail just yards from Walkway Over the Hudson, it is right next to the Rail Trail’s Haviland Road parking lot. It is open to the public every Saturday, Sunday, and holiday from 11 am to 4 pm until Columbus Day. The gallery features exhibits on the former railroad and current rail trail, with a focus on those little red cabooses that fed the fantasies of children and adults alike, and a special photo display of a dramatic train wreck along the old railroad.

If you stood on this spot a century ago you could watch heavy freight trains roar by, headed toward the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge and beyond, into New England. Or, travelling the other way, toward connecting trains in the route’s western terminus in Campbell Hall, NY or the big train yard in Maybrook NY– You might cover your ears as the powerful locomotive roared by and the loaded boxcars rattled along, but you’d probably grin as the little red caboose at the end of the train passed by you and disappeared out of sight. Because what can you do but grin? Cabooses are just so darn cute. Or as one Internet writer recently called them – endearing.

5,000 Grins Later

caboose interiorToday the trains are long gone. They stopped crossing the river in 1974 when a fire damaged the bridge and it closed. For a few years, trains did continue to run on a limited schedule between Maybrook and Highland, but that ended in 1982. Even the tracks are gone, replaced by the Hudson Valley Rail Trail, and the bridge has become Walkway Over the Hudson. But here, back by popular demand, stands a caboose! Last summer, 5,000 people visited this new Caboose Gallery, to see its exhibits and to climb up into its cupola and play trainman. There were grins all around.

Caboose to Gallery

“Was this caboose used on this train line?” is a popular question from gallery visitors. While this caboose was last used on the Pennsylvania Railroad, the answer to the question is, “It quite likely was.” The gallery is housed in a N5 model caboose, built in 1926. Railroad cars are moved a lot among train lines, and it is known that N5s, the first metal cabooses, were used on the Maybrook Line, as the east-west railroad through Highland was popularly called.

This caboose was acquired years ago for use as a tourist office in Highland. After a few years it was moved down 9W to Milton, but eventually it closed and sat abandoned until Ray and Claire Costantino, former and current president, respectively, of the Hudson Valley Rail Trail Association (HVRTA), purchased it and donated it to the Association.

Its conversion to gallery began last spring when HVRTA Board Member Rafael Diaz spearheaded the effort to turn the caboose into exhibit space. He got a modest budget from HVRTA, enthusiastic carpentry work by Board Member Peter Bellizzi, new lighting arranged by Board Member Vera Lawrence, creative graphics by Nancy Heim, and plenty of scrubbing and painting by me. The freshened-up caboose walls filled with exhibits and the gallery opened in July, 2015.

The Caboose Gallery is divided into three main exhibit sections. Most visitors enter from the west, which borders the main path between the parking lot and the Rail Trail. What they see first are exhibits on the history of the old railroad and the functions of cabooses and the people who worked in them.

Right away visitors seem to fall into two viewing groups: One group goes straight to the text-rich posters. The posters show that the track carried mainly freight trains, moving coal and raw materials from Pennsylvania and the heartland to New England factories and ports and returning loaded with manufactured goods. There were passenger trains too, though, occasionally carrying Franklin Roosevelt from Washington.

Reading the posters, visitors are surprised to learn that the caboose was more than a place for trainmen to eat and sleep. It was actually the control center for every freight train. It was an office for the conductor, who kept the train’s freight shipment waybills and records. The freight train conductor was not at all like the ticket punchers on passenger trains. He was the boss of the train and its crew; even the engineer reported to him. He gave orders on where to stop to leave off shipments, move whole boxcars onto sidings, and pick up freight.

Gallery visitors in the second group are drawn first to the graphic exhibits. There is a map of the former railroad, from its western terminus at Campbell Hall, NY, to destinations in New England. The evolution of the caboose is illustrated by a set of drawings of the earliest to most modern iterations. A third graphic exhibit pictures a trainman demonstrating arm and lantern signals to communicate up and down the length of the train. Young visitors particularly respond to the signals poster, and have fun copying the positions.

Other visitors – perhaps those who have just hiked across Walkway – simply sit down and relax on the benches that once covered storage bins and served as bunks.

The Center Section

The middle of the gallery is the biggest attraction for kids. There, if they are accompanied by adults, they are invited to climb up to the cupola, using the original toe holes and hand grips built into the caboose cabinetry. From up there they smile down at parents with cameras or out the windows for a great photo op from outside. And they can pretend to be trainmen and watch out the window for problems occurring all along the train.

In the old days the wheels on freight trains were kept lubricated by journal boxes on the axles. The boxes were filled with oil and “rags” – really a sponge-like stuffing. Sometimes the boxes overheated, the soft metal bushings began to melt, and, if not caught in time, wheels fell off, causing derailments and occasionally catapulting cars.

One day last year, as Diaz described this to a group of visitors, one man piped up and said his grandparents were killed in just such an accident outside Philadelphia in 1943. It was a famous case. By that time, cars had roller bearings, eliminating such a possibility. But it was a busy season and the railroad added an old diner with journal boxes, to tragic results. Seventy-six passengers were killed.

Also in the gallery’s center section, exhibit space across from the cupola contains posters about the Rail Trail and a collection of historic photographs taken along the railroad during its operating period from 1889 to 1982, some found by Town of Lloyd Historian, Liz Alfonso, and some provided by the Railroad Museum in Maybrook.

The Great Train Wreck

The eastern-most section of the caboose contains a train wreck exhibit, with an explanatory poster, reproductions of local newspaper articles, and a number of photographs with overturned tanker cars and burning houses. It happened right in Highland in 1943, spilling 260,000 gallons of fuel oil, disrupting the war effort, and causing $500,000 in damages – equivalent to about $10 million today. Assistant Town Historian Grace Philips remembers it from when she was a toddler. Her family had just moved from one of the affected houses and she recalls her mother holding her up to see the house in flames.

What caused the wreck? Concerns about Nazi sabotage brought in FBI investigators, and no, it wasn’t sabotage at all. But no spoiler here. To discover the surprising cause, come and visit!

This third section is also a little roomier, so visiting families hang out and chat, then do their best to gather up the kids and move along to Walkway. Last year, one little boy, about four years old, flatly refused to budge.

“Come on,” his mother urged, “we’re going on the bridge.”

“I want to ride on the bridge,” the child stated.

Misunderstanding, his mother explained that they couldn’t take their car on the bridge.

“No,” he replied. “I want to ride on this train.”

I pointed out that this “train” couldn’t move. “There are no tracks for it to travel on.”

Crossing his little arms firmly, the boy sat down and demanded, “Get tracks.”

I love the caboose and sort of agree with him. Maybe next year?

In the meantime, you might walk down to the river’s edge to watch the freight trains rumble along the West Shore Line. But you won’t see a caboose. All that’s at the back of the last car these days is an orange box, maybe three feet high.

What happened to the caboose? It’s gone the way of the dodo bird, replaced by that orange box, named FRED, short for Flashing Rear-end Device. FRED gathers all the information the caboose crew used to collect, then transmits it to a receiver in the locomotive, nicknamed – you guessed it – WILMA.  And if FRED and WILMA have a spat, they do it by radio signals, not fisticuffs.

You can, however, see another N5 caboose about two miles west along the Rail Trail at the Pavilion on New Paltz Road. It’s not fitted out with exhibits, but like the gallery, it is endearing.