Walkway Over the Hudson provides a gateway from one side of the river to the other on a repurposed railroad bridge. Now those traveling its length can experience a portal of a different sort inside an antique caboose stationed at the Haviland Road parking lot at the Highland entrance to the Walkway. The caboose is a 1926 N5 — among the first made of steel rather than wood — recently equipped with several exhibits on local railroad-related history. Visitors who stop in to check it out will find their imaginations taken on a journey into the past, with exhibits inside that detail the history of the trains that once crossed the river there. And the remaining original features of the caboose offer the opportunity to imagine what life was like for the trainmen whose working lives were carried out inside it nearly a century ago.
The caboose will be open to the public on weekends from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. through October. It was purchased and donated to the Hudson Valley Rail Trail Association (HVRTA) by Ray and Claire Costantino, former and current presidents, respectively, of the nonprofit organization that maintains and improves the trail on behalf of the Town of Lloyd.
Since opening to the public several weeks ago, the caboose has been a magnet for kids and adults alike, says HVRTA board member Rafael Diaz, who spearheaded the project to establish the exhibits inside utilizing materials gathered by Lloyd Town Historian, Elizabeth Alfonso. “Kids are naturally drawn to the cupola, but adults stop to read the contents of the displays and view the photos,” he notes, observing that the cupola also serves as an excellent photo opportunity for parents to get pictures of their children who have clambered up into it.
On a recent visit to the caboose, opened up mid-week for this reporter to take a look inside, it didn’t take long for Diaz’s words to prove true. Several families passing by dropped in and soon the trainman’s perch was filled with a half dozen happy kids staying still just long enough to have their photo taken before scrambling down to explore all the features they discovered. “All aboard!” shouted one enthusiastic boy from the end of the caboose. “What’s this for?”
And that’s the type of curiosity that’s been sparked by the opening of the caboose, says Diaz’s wife, Donna Deeprose. Active in many Highland community improvement projects, she’s been involved in the restoration of the interior and getting the exhibits installed. Just in the short time the caboose has been open to the public, she says, the couple have seen a great deal of interest from people who are getting enjoyment from seeing what’s inside.
Diaz explains that the caboose was the control center for the operation of freight trains, serving as the office for the conductor, who kept the train’s freight shipment waybills and records and gave the orders to crew and engineer. The caboose was where the crew cooked, ate, rested and slept, lying on the lockers visitors will see inside the N5. The lockers contained the equipment for signaling and maintenance. The caboose was at the back so that the crew could look out over the entire train to spot any problems, sitting in the cupola for a commanding view.
An informative panel in the exhibits explains that while “old-timers talk about the thrill of seeing the world pass by from on high” in their perch, they were actually in the cupola to observe anything unusual going on with the cars ahead and to be alert for smoke coming from the “journal boxes” that supply oil for the axles, which could lead to derailment.
The terrible consequences of derailment are detailed in an exhibit that tells the story of a tragic event that happened on the line in 1943. Two young boys, ages eight and 14, were playing around and put rocks on the tracks. The resulting train derailment and fiery wreck, right at the height of World War II, caused a major oil spill and disrupted crucial rail traffic over the Poughkeepsie-Highland Bridge (now the Walkway Over the Hudson).
The incident prevented the movement of 3,500 rail cars that carried fuel and raw materials to factories in New England from the rest of the country — over one of only two railroad bridges at the time that crossed the Hudson for its entire length — and disrupted the war effort, which was highly dependent upon rail transport of materials and troops. And tragically, the spread of fire fed by 261,000 gallons of spilt gasoline and oil dislocated many Highland residents, who lost their homes that bordered the tracks.
Other informative panels inside the caboose explain the history of the railroad line that once crossed the river at that location. While there were passenger cars at times — including those that carried Franklin D. Roosevelt to Highland, where he was picked up by car and driven across the Mid-Hudson Bridge to his home in Hyde Park —its primary use was for freight trains, some 2,000 a day before the Depression and 3,500 by World War II. Sixty percent of the freight carried was in coal and oil heading eastward.
The 1974 fire on the bridge brought freight transport to an end, but by then the business was in trouble anyway, with difficulties created by government regulation and competition from public highways. Federal laws in the 1980s permitted railroads to close unprofitable lines to avoid bankruptcy, clearing the way for abandoned lines to be converted into rail trails; in this case, one that leads to Walkway Over the Hudson.
The recent history of the 1926 N5 caboose after it went out of service is slightly unclear; it was apparently moved from Highland to the Marlborough region in the late 1980s or early ‘90s before its purchase by the Costantinos and its return home to Highland.
And it’s worth noting here, to avoid any visitor confusion, that the Hudson Valley Rail Trail owns two antique N5 cabooses: the other, a circa 1915 caboose donated by former town historian Ethan Jackman, resides unused at present by the Rail Trail’s Highland Rotary Pavilion at 101 New Paltz Road.
The caboose with the exhibits is located at 75 Haviland Road in Highland.