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July 10, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have considered what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Upstate Forever, 507 Pettigru Street, Greenville, SC 29601, (864) 250-0500,           

In pre-pandemic times, I enjoyed breakfast at the Skillet at least once every week. The grill is a local eatery and popular gathering place in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the crossroads of the South, my hometown. The restaurant is in a shotgun arrangement with tables and chairs down the left side and a long curving counter down the right side. On most days, three cooks vie for position at the grill behind the counter.    

Early one morning, a fellow sat next to me on one of the spinning stools at the counter, sipping coffee as we watched our eggs, bacon, and grits being prepared.

“Are you Kirk Neely?” he inquired.

“Yes,” I responded, shaking his hand.

He commented on this column, “By the Way,” saying he was a regular reader.

“I am a little older than you are, but I enjoy your point of view.”

It was then that our conversation turned to the many changes that have occurred during our lifetime. We listed several things that have vanished. Some things are best relegated to the past, such as water fountains identified as white and colored, for example.

Other things had probably made life better. I asked him if he, as a child, had ever caught a crawfish on a chicken gizzard or kicked a tin can down a country road. A bunch of kids playing baseball until they wanted to do something else was better than having to wear a uniform and play for a certain number of innings surrounded by eager adults more interested in who wins and who loses the game.

After I left the Skillet that morning, I stopped by the public library, another of my favorite places. While there, I began thinking of the parts of my life as a boy that I really miss now. I miss the lumberyard and the fragrance of pinesap mingled with cigar smoke. In a journal that I usually have with me, I started making a list.  Of course, the most important entries were the people who have left this life for the next. But I also listed such simple memories as a slice of Mammy’s warm apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream, fishing in a farm pond with Pappy, swapping yarns with my uncles, listening to my dad whistle, hearing my mother sing. At the bottom of my list, I jotted the words red caboose.

Several years ago, I was invited to hold a book signing at Magnolia Station, Spartanburg’s historic railroad terminal. Nearby was the Hub City Farmer’s Market, crowded with shoppers purchasing freshly baked bread and homegrown produce.  Local vendors offered squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and sweet corn.

I was positioned under a canopy near the newly-restored Southern Railway bright red caboose. It is a thing of beauty.  Those who worked on its restoration gave great attention to detail. It is well worth a trip to Magnolia Station to view the caboose. Take your children or your grandchildren with you. They might not ever see another caboose.

Later that day, I watched a Norfolk Southern freight, having two engines and perhaps eighty cars, rumble past my house. That train is just one of eighteen or so that travel along the tracks located at the rear of our property every day. Not a single one of those trains has a caboose at the end.

A train without a caboose is like a good breakfast without a cup of coffee. A train with no caboose is incomplete; it is an unfinished symphony, a mystery novel with the last page ripped out. What happened to the familiar red caboose that signaled the end of every train?

It is generally thought that the name caboose came from the Dutch word for a ship’s galley, kabuis, indicating that a primary function was to provide a place where food for the crew was prepared.

In the early 1800s, the first caboose was merely a wooden shack built on an empty flatcar that protected the train crew from the weather. Railroad companies realized that it offered a good vantage point to observe the tail end of the train. A cupola was added to provide a lookout post atop the caboose. The caboose’s role as a form of shelter was transformed into being an essential safety feature.

During the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, the caboose carried a conductor, a brakeman, and a flagman. Before the era of automatic air brakes, the engineer signaled by whistle the need to slow down or stop. The rear brakeman’s job was to climb over the moving train and make his way forward, turning brake wheels on each car. When the train stopped, the flagman signaled approaching trains to halt. The crew sitting in the cupola of the moving train watched for smoke from overheated wheels called hotboxes or other signs of trouble.

By the 1970s, the caboose had become a thing of the past. Railroad crews call the new technology that has replaced the caboose FRED (Flashing Rear End Device). A FRED is attached to the last car’s rear coupler and connected to the train’s air brake line. The device radios telemetry to the engineer, including brake pressure at the rear of the train, the movement of the last car, and the working condition of the flashing red light during darkness.

The disappointing side of the new technology is that FRED cannot wave to children watching the passing train.

So why should I care about the end of the caboose?

Allow me to share a story from my family history.


“Is that pie ready yet?” were his last words.

The aroma of an apple pie baking in a wood stove wafted up to the cupola of the caboose located at the end of the moving freight train. Tantalized by the aroma, the brakeman, posted on top, leaned over the railing, shouting above the clatter of the rumbling train to the cook below.

Somewhere near Tullahoma, Tennessee, he was jolted from his perch at a bend on the mountain grade, hurling him to the double tracks below. Unconscious and unnoticed, the brakeman was struck and killed by a speeding train traveling from Murfreesboro on the opposing tracks.

Billy Neely, as he was called, was William Morgan Neely, a tall man with dark eyes and a full mustache. He was my great-grandfather. His death is somewhat mysterious. Some speculated that a hobo robbed him and threw him from the moving train. Presumably, the motion of the train dislodged him from the roof of the caboose. Whatever the reason for his demise, he had been robbed of everything except his gold railroad pocket watch by the time his body was located.

Tullahoma, Tennessee, was usually as far south as my great-grandfather traveled on his job as a brakeman for the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad. Another man would take his position atop the caboose as the train continued to Chattanooga. Billy Neely would work the freight back to Murfreesboro.

Tullahoma was not only his turnaround place; it was also the area famous for Tennessee sipping whiskey. George Dickel and Jack Daniel established their distilleries eleven miles apart between Tullahoma and Lynchburg. Frequently, Billy Neely took a bottle with him on the return trip to Murfreesboro. Maybe that’s why he fell off the train. Perhaps it was apple pie and whiskey. He had a weakness for both.

William Morgan Neely was buried in the family plot on his father’s farm below Short Mountain near Fosterville, Tennessee. His grave is within two hundred yards of the mainline of the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad.

For years, a caboose was attached to every train that passed. No more. The caboose is a thing of the past, an interesting exhibit at a railroad museum like Magnolia Station.

The red caboose is one of the things I miss. Though I never met my great-grandfather, every time I see a red caboose, I think of him and the story of his death.

By the way, before my grandfather died, he told me the story and showed me Billy Neely’s pocket watch. That’s better than a red caboose.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at

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