Rio Grande freight trains always comprised a caboose at the rear end of the train, it was home away from home for the conductor and other members of the train crew such as the rear brakeman. Cabooses were equipped with a cupola allowing the crew to monitor the train while running, with an office providing the stationery and forms used to establish the train paperwork, and with minimum accomodations covering the basic needs of the crew during their tour of duty (stove, water tank, bunks, cabinets, etc). Between 1871 and 1923, the Rio Grande took delivery of about a hundred narrow gauge cabooses, almost all of them built by its own shops. These cabooses had often been extensively modified throughout their service life and sometimes even completely rebuilt, as a result none of the Rio Grande cabooses were strictly identical, even among the members of the same class. In 1968, at the end of freight operations on the D&RGW narrow gauge, only nine cabooses remained on the roster.
The first Denver & Rio Grande cabooses were short 4-wheel cars with a center cupola and having a length of 16ft. They were numbered from 1 to 88, the first 4 have been built by Jackson & Sharp in 1871 and the other by the D&RG shops between 1876 and 1885. In 1887, all Rio Grande cabooses were renumbered from 0500 on. One of these early cabooses, #49 (which later became #0548), is preserved today at the Colorado Railroad Museum, almost in its original condition. Most of these cabooses were removed from service before 1903, the last of them probably before 1914, sometimes after one or several rebuildings.
In 1903, new Interstate Commerce Commission regulations required air brakes and automatic couplers on cars, and it became urgent to replace the old 4-wheel cabooses. Based on the model of a first caboose rebuilt in 1892, at least eight 4-wheel cabooses were then extensively rebuilt between 1904 and 1918 or so and received, among other modifications, air brakes and new trucks to replace their original 4 wheels. Caboose #0524 conserved at the Colorado Railroad Museum is an example of this type of transformation.
Between 1885 and 1890, the Denver & Rio Grande built 16 new cabooses, still with a short frame (17ft long) and a central cupola, but from the beginning equipped with trucks. Numbered 0500, 0501, 0503 to 0505 and 0573 to 0583, these cabooses were withdrawn from the active roster between 1951 and 1953 (except three rebuilt with a longer frame). Ten of them have survived today, including #0500 on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, #0578 at the Colorado Railroad Museum and #0579 on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Another group of six cabooses, numbered from 0584 to 0589, have been built in 1900, still by the D&RG shops, but this time with a longer frame (26ft long) and a cupola shifted to one end. Five of these cabooses have been preserved, including #0585 at the South Park City Museum and #0586 on the Georgetown Loop Railroad.
Finally in 1920 and 1923, 5 last cabooses have been rebuilt with a long frame (25ft long), either from 1880 and 1881 short 4-wheel cabooses (#0517 and 0540), or from 8-wheel cabooses dating from 1886 (#0503, 0505 and 0574). These rebuildings could almost be considered as building new cabooses from scratch since only a few iron parts of the original cabooses had been conserved, but the resulting new cabooses kept the numbers of the old ones they were rebuilt from. Today, #0503 is at the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, #0505 and 0540 on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, #0517 at the South Park City Museum and #0574 on the Georgetown Loop Railroad. Several boxcars have also been used by the Rio Grande as cabooses for work trains, after slight modifications (addition of side windows). Two boxcars have been more heavily modified (#04343 and 04990) in 1914 and 1919 and converted into long cabooses. All Rio Grande cabooses underwent numerous alterations throughout their life, following the evolution of safety regulations. Their ladders and grab irons (painted white) were added around 1913, the curved protruding ends of the ladders later, usually in the fifties. D&RG cabooses originally sported a bright red livery, then starting from around 1918, they were painted boxcar red.
Caboose #49, built by the D&RG shops in 1881. It has been restored at the Colorado Railroad Museum in the livery and with the markings it sported before 1887.
D&RGW short caboose #0578, preserved at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden. It was built in 1886 and from the beginning equipped with trucks.
Rio Grande long caboose #0503. Dating from 1920, it is today in use on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.
View of the end of long caboose #0503 opposite to the cupola.
Put into service in 1880, rebuilt in 1918 (with trucks instead of its original 4 wheels) and retired only in 1953, #0524 is the caboose which had the longest service life on the Rio Grande.
D&RGW long cabosse #0586 built in 1900. It has been restored at the Georgetown Loop Railroad in the appearance it presented in the fifties.
Preserved in Fairplay at the South Park City Museum, Rio Grande caboose #0585 has seen better days.
Short caboose #0579 dating from 1886, seen in Antonito during its rebuilding by the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.