Kaleidoscope: 'Caboose man' of Mantua worked for Erie Railroad

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published:

Most rail fans such as myself have collected a handful of souvenirs relating to trains -- books and/or photographs of classic steam locomotives, calendars, recent photos they've taken of trains passing by or ball caps and T-shirts with a famous railroad's name and/or logo on the front.

Some might have a collection of model trains, and if they're lucky they might have an old lantern or oil can, or signal lights or crossbucks obtained when a line was abandoned and the tracks removed. Most items are small and can be stored in a room or closet or on a book shelf.

But Kenny DeYoung, who worked for the Erie Railroad for 13 years in the 1950s and 1960s, didn't stop at collecting those small items. He has a full-sized Erie red caboose, a concrete trackside telephone booth and various signal and crossing lights, plus other railroad items on his property.

And they all can easily be seen by passersby on Pioneer Trail at the intersection of Diagonal Road, just two or three miles east of the Aurora corporation limit.

In my 26 1/2 years at the Advocate, several Aurorans have asked me what I knew about the red caboose setting on the hillside lawn at that location. I've passed it many times, always wondered about it and vowed one day to find out how it got there.

Chamberlain Road resident Ron Eichelberry, a friend of DeYoung's and treasurer of the Rotary Club of Aurora, recently arranged for me to get a close look at the caboose and railroad memorabilia, and I did so Sept. 28 after attending the fall family festival at Sunny Lake Park.

INFO ABOUT DEYOUNG

AND HIS ERIE CABOOSE

From 1953 to 1966, lifelong Ravenna-Mantua resident DeYoung worked as an equipment manager for the Erie, doing maintenance along the stretch of track which ran from Levittsburg through Garrettsville, Mantua, Aurora and up into Cleveland.

Some parts of the track between Chamberlain Road and Cleveland still exist and are owned by Norfolk Southern, but the section between Chamberlain Road and Levittsburg is gone. The Erie -- or by then Erie Lackawana -- stopped running on the line in the early 1970s.

The 77-year-old DeYoung said that stretch once boasted businesses such as a feed and grain mill, lumber yard and sand plant, at which cars were switched regularly. He said he doesn't remember steam locomotives running on the line when he started since the Erie was mostly dieselized by then.

After leaving the railroad, DeYoung worked for Buckeye Pipeline and Kent State University, then became self-employed doing construction projects and handyman work until back problems slowed him down. His brother also worked for the Erie and Conrail for several years.

He continued his interest in railroads and had the opportunity to obtain a caboose in 1993 from a private owner near Sandy Lake in Mercer County, Pa. After finalizing the deal, the caboose stayed there for a year until DeYoung made arrangements with a friend to transport it on a low-boy trailer.

DeYoung said if he hadn't had a friend who owned equipment that could move the large vehicle, it would have cost a lot of money to relocate it.

It took several hours to move Erie number O-4961, which has now been in DeYoung's yard for 19 years. He's done much restoration work on the wooden caboose which dates to 1928. The carbody/frame weighs about 16 tons and the wheel assemblies, or "trucks," weigh about 8 tons.

DeYoung has rebuilt portions of the carbody and has repainted/treated or replaced some of the side boards. His vehicle is red on the outside -- like most but not all cabooses -- and gray with some narrow green strips on the inside.

DeYoung, who has lived in his Pioneer Trail home since 1964, said his caboose is similar to the one which sets beside Mantua Station Drug, which is numbered O-4967. DeYoung occasionally pitches in to help the owner of the drug store repaint and refurbish that caboose.

The caboose has become sort of a "man cave" for DeYoung, who sometimes spends his spare time inside. It has amenities such as bench seats, a stove, closets, icebox, bench bed, desks, lockers, toilet, lanterns hanging from the ceiling and a cupola on top equipped with a traditional seat.

DeYoung and his second wife Judy are president and secretary of a small group known as the Northeastern Ohio Railroad Historical Society, which meets to view train videos, talk about trains and sometimes go on excursions. Judy works at the Cleveland Clinic.

Scattered on the lawn near the caboose are a concrete trackside phone booth which once set along the Erie line near Mennonite and Mantua Center roads, crossbucks and crossing warning lights, pole-mounted semaphore signal, vertical colored light signal and "W" sign, which sets along a track and instructs the engineer that a crossing is ahead and he should sound his whistle or horn.

DeYoung said when he is no longer around, he hopes to donate the caboose to an organization or government entity which would preserve and display it, so the younger generation can see what working on the railroad was like in the industry's first century or so.

My visit with DeYoung and his wife was enjoyable and long overdo.

MORE ABOUT CABOOSES

Although cabooses, or "cabeese" as some people call more than one, are rarely used on railroads now, they still can be seen many places on the U.S. landscape. They were largely replaced in the 1980s by ETDs (end of train devices) and FREDs (flashing rear-end devices).

The rear-end devices relay air-brake pressure and other readings from the back of the train to the locomotive engineer, who also now can get computer printouts with important information. With modern advances, train crews have been reduced from three to five people, to two.

"Caboose" is said to have originated from the German "kabuus" or the Dutch "kabuis," which meant a "little room" or a galley on an 18th century ship.

About three years ago in this column, I wrote about a visit to Dave Adair's residence east of Cambridge in Guernsey County. He has four cabooses in various states of restoration, plus a replica of a depot which contains train memorabilia. He's a member of the Byesville Scenic Railway.

Cabooses also can be found at museums such as the Dennison Depot, Conneaut Depot and Mad River & Nickel Plate in Bellevue. Sometimes they set on sidings along railroad lines. A pair in Steubenville and Sugar Grove near Lancaster serve as visitor centers.

On Route 22 a few miles west of Cadiz, an old Norfolk & Western caboose sets in a farm field. I've seen others on streets in Hartville, Grafton, Holloway, Brewster (near Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway's headquarters), Shawnee and Belpre, and there's a shell of one at Ohio's first oil well near Caldwell.

Several cabooses also set on tracks near the Hocking Valley Scenic Railroad depot in Nelsonville. There's 21 of them on tracks in Titusville, Pa., which have been converted into motel rooms. I stayed in the Nickel Plate caboose during a Labor Day weekend road trip to the Oil Region. And the Little Red Caboose Motel is in Strasburg, Pa.

Cabooses came to railroads in the mid-1800s, and early ones were converted box cars or shanties on flat cars. Some short, four-wheeled cabooses were called bobbers. Regular cabooses ride on four, two-wheeled "trucks." Other names for cabooses are crummies, way cars, cabins, hacks, clown wagons and brain boxes.

They provided an easy way for crews to exit trains for switching or to protect the rear when stopped, helped crews check for problems and served as offices for conductors, brakemen and flagmen. Early cabooses were made of wood, but steel ones became popular duirng World War I.

A standard caboose featured a cupola so the conductor could sit above the vehicle's roofline and see forward or backward. There also were the bay window style (extended window on the side) and extended vision cupolas or "saddlebags" (ones wider than the sides of the carbody).

Cupolas could be situated in the middle of the carbody, at various positions between the middle and end or right on the end. B&O "wagontop" cabooses were bay window styles with a unique vertical-ribbed construction.

In their heyday in the late 1920s, there were about 34,000 cabooses on U.S. railroads. The International Car Co. in Kenton, Ohio, was a leader in caboose construction. Cabooses generally were not air conditioned, but did have stoves for heating in cold weather.

Although most were bright red, a number of railroads painted cabooses a different color such as maroon for the Pennsylvania, yellow for the Chesapeake & Ohio, green with yellow ends for Burlington Northern and blue for Conrail. After 1946, Nickel Plate cabooses carried the slogan "Nickel Plate high speed service" on the sides.

I was privileged to ride in the cupola of the Midwest Railroad Preservation Society's caboose during an excursion on the Wheeling & Lake Erie line from the Glenwillow depot to downtown Kent and back about three years ago. It was a unique experience.

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189

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