Walter Aday, a former Santa Fe railway conductor, once held plans to restore and revitalize a retired caboose into a railroad museum at his rural home near Chanute, KS. But, as is often the case with big dreams, the idea got sidetracked.
Before he completed a career that spanned 35 years with the railroad, Aday bought a lone caboose after the industry gained permission to run trains without cabooses or “way cars,” as they are known in railroad jargon.
“I had planned to restore it, but then you could say I got derailed,” said Aday, who planted the 30-ton caboose next to tomato patch in his large backyard garden.
While the caboose sat idle on his property, Aday’s bigger mission became helping create the Cheery Street Youth Center in Chanute, which provides a safe place for school kids to play and learn after school. The center, which opened in 1995, benefits more than 130 children a year.
“The caboose did okay sitting on the backburner, but 16 years later I realized I had other things had been on the front burner,” he said. “So we never got the caboose restored.”
Now, however, the old rail car has found a new home at the Bartlesville Union Depot display track right behind steam locomotive No. 940. The purchase of the caboose, as well as the move from Chanute to Bartlesville, has been paid for through donations to the Locomotive No. 940 fund managed by the Bartlesville Community Foundation.
“I’m really happy that it’s going to have a home in Bartlesville. It’s a good spot,” said Aday. “I’m happy that it will be seen by the public and appreciated.”
During his 35-year career with the railway – minus a two year stint with the U.S. Army – Aday was in charge of many freight trains that passed through Bartlesville. He said that his first job with the Santa Fe began in 1951 in Wellington, Kan., where he worked as a switchman and oversaw the movement of rail cars and train systems, as well as checked track switch conditions and routes.
From there, Aday worked his way up the ladder, gaining added experience in several areas of the railroad profession and eventually become the freight conductor. Although the locomotive engineer operates the train, the conductor is in charge of the train.
“I enjoyed the responsibility of being a conductor and knowing where these big trains were headed,” said Aday, who’s now 85 years old. “A typical freight train I conducted was any where between 65 to 100 cars long. The biggest one was about 182 cars long.”
As a conductor, Aday ensured that the freight loads – which was often various and included materials such as grain, oil and rock – stayed on the move and kept rolling between points of origin and destination. “Chanute was my home base, and many of the destinations went through Winfield and Pittsburgh, Kansas, and Tulsa and Bartlesville,” he said.
Although cabooses are rarely seen on trains today, he explained that they served several functions before they were replaced by technology. Today they are more or less become “obsolete,” he said.
“In the early years before diesel engines and roller bearings and better equipment, it was important to have a caboose on the end of the train, where the conductor could do his paperwork,” he said. “The brakeman could ride in the copula and check both sides of the train to see if there was a hot box (overheated wheel bearings), loads shifted and anything else dragging.
Eventually, electronic detectors for hotboxes and dragging equipment were installed along main lines, and computers have now eliminated the conductors need to store and track paperwork.
Still, the caboose often served as a “home away from home” for Aday, who spent many nights sleeping in the caboose, as well as cooking often in it.
“I enjoyed being in the caboose. It could sometimes be bumpy, but often times it just depended on the railroad and the downhill grade,” he said. “I spent several nights sleeping in one, and we’d cook anything from eggs, pancakes to tacos and t-bone steaks.”
Aday also recalls having to run off hobos sneaking on the trains on a regular basis. One memorable vagrant helped himself to Aday’s lunch, devouring everything except a can of beans. When Aday discovered the theft, the hobo was promptly discharged from the train.