History & Nostalgia

All ABOARD…the High Country Caboose Express!

By Steve York

The idea for this story was initially suggested by Fred Pfohl, proprietor of Fred’s Mercantile on Beech Mountain. Fred, an avid train and caboose enthusiast, went on a pilgrimage of sorts to visit several relic cabooses on display here in the High Country. So, it occurred to him that others might also enjoy that adventure while further exploring the communities where these cabooses are displayed.

But before we hop aboard that adventure, let’s look back at the origin of cabooses and how their legacy has marked our nation’s long and proud history with trains.

In early 1830-something, a small, roughly hewn wooden shanti building was attached atop an out-of-service flatbed boxcar and coupled to the back end of a freight train. It was built to shelter the conductor, his crew and their basic needs. That became the very first train caboose.

By the 1840s, dedicated caboose cars with “cupulas”—or windowed lookout compartments on top—became standard. The cupulas aided the conductor with enhanced views of the cars ahead and approaching trains from behind. They had platforms on each end with handrails and steps, plus breaks to either help adjust the trains’ speed or make emergency stops. Cabooses were generally considered to be even more critical to the train’s safe operation than the locomotive.

From before Abraham Lincoln to recent history, the rear platform of the caboose was often used by presidents and candidates to deliver their messages directly to the public. And in those early years before air travel, the train was the fastest, most practical way for political leaders to make personal contact with tens of thousands of people across multiple states and communities.

Since the late 1980s, most active cabooses have been retired and either junked or discarded in abandoned railroad yards. But there are six notable ones on public display right here in the High Country. Here are their towns and a little bit about their legacies:

Newland, NC:  Perhaps the most famous caboose in this area is from the old East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC) line, better known as “Tweetsie” (named after its shrill steam whistle).  Its grand red caboose, No. 505, was part of the ET&WNC system which transported iron ore from Cranberry through Elizabethton and Johnson City, Tennessee, and also made runs from Linville to Boone, North Carolina. It was in service from 1926 to 1950 when the ET&WNC was abandoned. It passed through a couple previous owners and locations before Jerry Turbyfill, VP of the ET&WNC Historical Society, and volunteers helped acquire and restore it to its new home alongside the old Linville Depot next to the Avery County Historical Museum, which is adjacent to the county courthouse on Newland’s Town Square.

Banner Elk, NC:  This resort community boasts two High Country cabooses. Coming from Hwy 105 down Hwy 184 into Banner Elk, the first one is sitting at the entrance to Sugar Creek Gem Mine/Sugar Creek Ski Rentals. Previously located behind the Great Train Robbery and Puerto Nuevo Restaurant, this caboose was moved, restored and painted red by Sugar Creek’s owners, Matt and Chris Leonard. When their winter ski and board rental business became so busy that customers had to wait outside in the cold, the brothers found the old 500-square-foot caboose to be an ideal and eye-catching overflow indoor setting, not to mention a tourist attraction in its own right.

Then, as you enter the town’s hub, there sits another red caboose and a Banner Elk landmark owned by Charles VonCanon. Named the “Clinchfield Caboose No. 1024,” this wooden-built gem served the Clinchfield Railroad from 1948 to 1964, making nearly 4,500 trips between Spartanburg, SC, and Elkhorn, KY, before finding its Banner Elk home in 1971. In 1990, the VonCanons added on a depot and a full finished basement creating at total of 1,324 square feet to the structure. After serving as several different enterprises and even surviving an interior fire, “No. 1024” is currently under additional restoration by the VonCanons.

West Jefferson, NC:  “Connie the Caboose,” at the Caboose Park on the Backstreet in downtown West Jefferson, was originally part of the Norfolk and Western Railroad’s rolling stock and was used on the Ashe County line. It found its new home in 2017 and was officially donated to West Jefferson by the Ashe County Historical Society in May, 2018. In an effort to restore it to its original glory, the Caboose Committee held fundraising to repaint the exterior back to the car’s original blue and yellow, and then renovate the interior to replicate its original look and feel.

Todd, NC:  Located near the site of the old Elkland Train Station in the quaint community of Todd on Hwy 194, you’ll find a rusty and weathered red caboose. Once a vital part of the Chesapeake Western Railroad Line, it is now on display as a proud and silent monument to its service. The community of Todd is set by the New River and was once a boom town when served by the Virginia-Carolina Railway system.

Spruce Pine, NC:  Known as the “Chessie Cat” caboose due to its Chessie Cat System logo on its side panel, this rusted yellow caboose was donated to the town of Spruce Pine by the CSX Transportation railroad operating system. It was part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Line and has lineage to the 190-year-old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad system. According to railroad enthusiasts, the “Chessie Cat” caboose was built in the 1970s and in use by the Clinchfield Railroad system up until about a year ago. 

Historical organizations or Chambers of Commerce in these five communities should be a good source for more information. And if, like Fred Pfohl, you’re a train and caboose fan, there are more retired cabooses on public display across the state and region. Their creative uses range from railroad museums to visitor centers, to restaurants, to cozy bed and breakfast inns, complete with authentic caboose ambiance. So, make tracks, hop aboard and be sure to grab a window seat!

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