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The Caboose

by Forrest Whitman

Salida’s Magic Caboose
Saturday, June 21 was dedication day for Denver and Rio Grande Railroad caboose 0576. It’s a magic caboose chock full of symbolism. It would take an author as sensitive as, say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez to write up all of that.
A caboose speaks to the kid in us all. How many ten-year-olds have watched a train go by and wanted to get on? When I was a boy we thought of trains as a magic ticket to somewhere else, somewhere more fun. The last long-distance caboose has been gone for two decades now, but 0576 reminds us of the magic of trains. She hints that we could go to a mythic somewhere else down the line.
Back in my railroad days, a caboose wasn’t only a symbol of getting away but also a symbol of welcome. Hobos stopped by our caboose as did cinder dicks (railroad police), union organizers and Mexican gandy dancers. It was against the rules, but everyone looked the other way. Once we hauled a woman and her groceries to a little town where she could catch up with the mixed train (local passenger and freight) she’d missed. On those rare occasions when I had enough seniority to be conductor on some freight, I’d even buy the beer. We’d put it in the ice cooler for when we got kicked off in some little town. That’s what happened after our 16-hour day wherever we ended up. Savanna, Illinois, right by the Mississippi, was my favorite stop. Rumors up and down the line had it that Salida was pretty hospitable too. Sackett is close to where 0576 is grounded now. The Victoria Tavern has been serving cold beer a long time.
Railroad history will be a part of her job. The Salida museum is a hidden gem and the caboose will generate interest in the museum. The town was founded by the Rio Gande Railroad. It was a railroad promoter, Alexander Cameron Hunt, who named the burg. Lots of railroad history is on display at the museum, and hopefully people will visit 0576 and become interested in seeing more.
For some folks (especially labor Democrats), the caboose symbolizes a time when working people made a good living. After two decades of media attack on unions, it’s hard to even think about unions today, but unions meant a good living. They could again.
Caboose 0576 down at the old yards will linger in the collective consciousness. I predict that deep in the night, train dreams will come stealing around Salidans like a rare spring fog. Some folks will partly wake up and hear that mournful freight rolling up toward Tennessee Pass. They’ll be remembering a train dream over their coffee and say something out of the blue like, “Hey, wonder if we could take a train trip?”
0576 carries a lot of symbolic weight. She adds a little magic to Colorado Central land.

Forrest puts on his retired minister hat and officiates weddings on any train, any time.