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Second Friday of the month (third Friday in five-week months) at 6:45 am, 8:45 am and 5:44 pm. Why's That? explores the things in Southwest Michigan – people, places, names – that spark your curiosity. We want to know what makes you wonder when you're out and about.

Why's That: Why is there a caboose in this Kalamazoo backyard?

How did it get there and what is it used for? The owners answered our listener's questions as they showed her around the caboose.

Monika Allen lives in Holland, but she grew up in Kalamazoo and still has family here. A few years ago, driving on South Street in the West Main Hill neighborhood, she saw something unexpected.

“I was in the car and I said, why is there a train, caboose, just on the side of Kalamazoo College up on the hill?”

Nestled behind a black metal fence in a shady backyard garden, a classic red caboose sits on a section of train track. Stepping inside is like stepping into the past. The inside is all original. The walls and ceiling are wood plank, painted white. The windows are glass with tan trim. Sitting inside, owner Bob Taylor said he gets questions like Monika’s all the time.

“I do kid a lot of people that ask me just off the cuff, why you have this here? And I kid them, I just tell them that it’s a hobby that went awry.”

Taylor’s wife Diane sits next to him. She said when they married in 1969, she knew he was - in his own words - a “railroad nut.”

“At that time, I think he had a few model trains and you could live with a few model trains around the Christmas tree. And then the big stuff came much later and by then it was too late. We'd been married quite a few years then,” Diane said to her husband’s amusement.

The “Big Stuff” included three cabooses back when the couple lived on a 12-acre property in Texas Township. When they moved to West Main Hill in 1998, Taylor whittled down his collection. He kept one caboose dating from the late 1920s, sold one to an artist, and donated the third one to the Kalamazoo Model Railroad Historical Society. That’s where I met Mark Tomlonson for a lesson in caboose history.

“It was a law that you had to have the caboose,” Tomlonson said.

Tomlonson is the Society’s librarian. A disclosure: he was also WMUK’s engineer - not the railroad kind - for many years and still hosts our program, “The Library,” on Sundays.

Tomlonson said that for more than a century the little red caboose was a fixture on the end of every freight train in the U.S. and Canada. It was a safety feature. Crew members sat high up in the cupola, a lookout post atop the caboose. From there, they could watch the whole train for smoke or mechanical trouble. Tomlonson said the caboose was also the conductor’s office, and the place where the crew ate and sometimes spent the night.

“The caboose is where they cooked lunch or breakfast or supper or whatever. And then at night, sometimes at the end of the job, they might not be anywhere where there's a hotel anywhere nearby and so they would also serve as sleeping quarters for the crew,” said Tomlonson.

A crane lowers a 12-ton train red caboose onto the tracks in Bob Taylor's Kalamazoo backyard in 1998.
Bob & Diane Taylor
A crane lowers the 1920s train caboose onto backyard tracks. Bob and Diane Taylor moved the caboose to their home in Kalamazoo's West Main Hill neighborhood in 1998.

But by the mid-1980s, new technologies had sidelined the caboose. Electronic sensors on the tracks could do much of the work the crew had once done. Just a few cabooses remain in service today, but their popular appeal has never waned.

“You see the caboose,” said Tomlonson, “it's nice punctuation. You know, it's like the period at the end of a sentence.”

Back on West Main Hill, Bob Taylor walks Monika and her family through the caboose.

Two long storage benches run along the side walls. Add cushions, and you’ve got a couple of beds. The original cast iron stove in the center needs a chimney pipe. Taylor said it’ll have one soon. At the back, he points out a sink, an icebox and a bathroom.

“And keep in mind that the bathroom is pre-OSHA,” Taylor said. “Which means that there is no tank underneath that kept the effluent.”

Taylor said the caboose was made in Southern Indiana by a company called the American Car and Foundry. It built the caboose for the Chicago North Western Railroad, which served several states including Michigan in the Upper Peninsula. Taylor bought it in the 1980s, from an unlikely source.

“This particular one came from, you’re going to laugh, a used car lot in West Chicago,” said Taylor. He described how the wheels, steps, pipes and equipment were removed to make the caboose as low as possible, so it could ride down I-94 on a flatbed truck without hitting an overpass.

When they moved to West Main Hill in 1998, Taylor said, the caboose was the “buzz in the neighborhood.” Neighbors watched as the truck driver who delivered the 12-ton caboose met the challenge of sharp turns.

“He made it up Academy and over on Monroe and turned the corner without taking any telephone poles with him,” Taylor said.

Though Taylor’s been restoring it for years, the caboose’s roof needs tarring, the floors need new paint and the conductor’s desk is being refinished. He hopes to finish those touches this year. And though it’s not heated or air-conditioned, it does have electricity.

Taylor said he uses the caboose as a place to relax. For the former librarian with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, that means doing puzzles and listening to classical music.

Was it worth it?

“It’s brought a lot of joy to Bob,” said wife Diane. “It’s important to him, so makes it important to me too.”

Taylor said it’s no longer a hobby that went awry.

“I’ve got to change that nowadays. I’ve got to say it’s a hobby I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.”

Our question-asker, Monika Allen, said she's glad.

“I grew up in Kalamazoo, I love Kalamazoo and this makes it one more little corner of Kalamazoo that’s just a little more interesting," she said.

Leona has worked as a journalist for most of her life - in radio, print, television and as journalism instructor. She has a background in consumer news, special projects and investigative reporting.