L&NE Caboose #580
Caboose No. 580 is a classic cupola caboose built for the Lehigh & New England Railroad. Today, it survives in the Tri-State collection as an example of the most prevalent caboose design used in the northeastern United States from the 1920s through 1980s.
Design & Construction
The Reading Railroad first developed this steel caboose design in the early 1920s based on a 1920 USRA design for wooden cabooses. Between July of 1924 and April of 1948, the new steel design was built by the Reading for or copied by several other railroads throughout the Northeast, including the Western Maryland (1936), Lehigh & New England (1937), Lehigh Valley (1939), Pittsburgh & West Virginia (1940), Central Railroad of New Jersey (1942), and Lehigh & Hudson River (1942). Due to its popularity, this design would come to be referred to as a "standard" caboose by railroaders or a "Northeastern" caboose by railfans, and several hundred were produced and used from the 1920s through the 1980s. Some of the Northeastern cabooses produced during World War II were produced with wooden sides to conserve steel for the war effort.
No. 580 Service History
Lehigh & New England (L&NE) caboose No. 580 was built by the Reading Railroad in their Reading, PA shops for the L&NE in June of 1937. This car is the class caboose from an order of five that were the only steel cabooses ever owned by the L&NE, and was built to the same specifications as the Reading's NMk class.
When the L&NE went out of business in 1961, No. 580 and its four sisters were sold to the Central Railroad of New Jersey, where they retained the same numbers and worked primarily on former L&NE lines. However, the CNJ also had their own nearly identical Northeastern cabooses. In the early 1970s, several of the CNJ's cabooses were slated for scrap, and No. 580 was included in this list. However, due to some kind of mix-up, No. 91500, the CNJ's class car, was scrapped instead, and from that point forward, the former L&NE No. 580 was incorrectly identified as the CNJ No. 91500 on official paperwork.
The CNJ became part of the Conrail merger in 1976, and the caboose was renumbered Conrail No. 18886, class N4B. It was retired in 1984, along with most of Conrail's caboose fleet, and stored at Conrail's Rutherford, PA yard.
Tri-State volunteers John Sobotka and Bob Bahrs visited Rutherford in 1986 with the intention of acquiring a Northeastern-style caboose. As this caboose was marked as a former CNJ car on official CR rosters, it was only the sharp eyes of Sobotka and Bahrs that noticed the car's unique awnings and identified it properly as an L&NE car when scoping out acquisition candidates. Without knowing its L&NE number, Tri-State obtained the caboose from Conrail in 1986, along with DL&W No. 896 and RRRR No. 10. Further paint and photo analysis of the car's various dings, dents, and repairs led to Tri-State's proper identification of the car as L&NE No. 580, which is now one of only a handful of surviving pieces of Lehigh & New England equipment.
The identification of this car as L&NE No. 580 caused another stir, as the Steamtown collection already had a caboose that was acquired in 1976 and lettered L&NE No. 580. It was repainted again with this number in 1988. It is still unclear how Steamtown originally determined in 1976 that they had No. 580, because as far as anyone knew, that car was documented by the CNJ as being scrapped! However, upon realizing that Tri-State had acquired the real No. 580 (despite the conflicting CNJ records), further research from both Tri-State and Steamtown personnel led to the discovery that Steamtown actually possessed L&NE No. 583, which was repainted with its correct number in 1999. Clearly, the CNJ had a difficult time keeping track of its former L&NE cabooses!
Today, L&NE No. 580 is owned and operated by the Tri-State Railway Historical Society, and was restored inside and out by a team of Tri-State volunteers led by the late Don Oberding. L&NE No. 580 is maintained in operational condition, and is currently stored at the United Railroad Historical Society of NJ's restoration facility in Boonton, NJ.
A Personal Account
The Lehigh and New England Railroad Freight Car Diagram Book, written by Eric Neubauer, contains an autobiography of L&NE veteran Fred M. Manson. Manson was the L&NE's general car foreman at Pen Argyl from June of 1942 until he was promoted in 1958 to superintendent of the car department and locomotive shop as well as general storekeeper, both titles he held until his resignation on December 4, 1960. In Neubauer's book, Manson recalled his experiences with the 580-class steel cabooses:
"The cabooses were bright red.... They may have been a duller red originally, until I found a paint that really covered well made by Ball Chemical Paints, a Pittsburgh outfit. The roofs were black. Our big problem with the cabooses was trying to keep the glass. As hard as glass is, eventually road dirt and fumes from the locomotive would etch it, and you could not clean the windows. After a long period of time, the only thing to do was to replace the glass. Then, we got an ultimatum from the union that we had to put ice boxes in the cabooses, so we had a rush shipment sent down from the New England States. What they really wanted was a file case, because all they did was keep their files in the refrigerator, but the union was just flexing its muscles.
"The L&NE 580 class cabooses were built in Reading with Duryea underframes. They also had the Bettendorf swing motion truck. We thought we were making them so they would ride like a Pullman car, which they did until you got into pusher service. The coupler on the front of a steam locomotive was a very small shank pivoted coupler with nothing to control its swing one way or the other. When you got in behind a caboose and started to push on it, the caboose would cock itself. On one truck, the bolster would swing this way and on the other, the other way, and it frightened the guys so much that they'd get out of the caboose and ride on the car ahead of it because they thought it was going to derail. We had one instance coming up the grade from Bath where the pusher engine actually lifted the caboose right off the trucks, although the king pins kept them under it. I had to go out and ride several times myself and then I got talking to the chief mechanical officer, Hugh Ronalds, and told him I knew what the trouble was. He didn't quite agree with me but he let me put some regular trucks under a caboose to see how it worked. It worked fine, so we welded in stops so that the bolster couldn't go too far. That had to be in the early 1940's."
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