I grew up in a town with two railroad tracks, and lived just a block away from the rails.  I saw and heard so many trains I mostly never noticed they were there.  However, I never remember seeing a caboose.   According to the Union Pacific Railroad the history of the caboose is as follows:

The origins of both the car and the word are surrounded as much by legend as by fact. One popular version dates the word back to a derivation of the Dutch word “kombuis,” which referred to a ship’s galley. Use of cabooses began in the 1830s, when railroads housed trainmen in shanties built onto boxcars or flatcars.

The addition of the cupola – the lookout post atop the car – is attributed to a conductor who discovered in 1863 that he could see his train much better if he sat atop boxes and peered through the hole in the roof of his boxcar.

The caboose served as shelter at the rear of the train, minimal housing quarters, and an office for the conductor.  The famous cupola on topcaboose 2 provided an elevated perch to inspect the condition of the trains from above.

The caboose was required by law for safety reasons, but in the 1980’s technology replaced the beloved and humble caboose.  Flash rear-end devices (FRED) replaced the caboose, electronically telling engineers about approaching trains as well as brake line pressure and accidental train separation.  However, the beginning of the end actually occurred in with the advent of the air break and longer trains such that the conductor could no longer see the entire length of the train.  Also:

New labor agreements reduced the hours of service required for train crews and eliminated the need for cabooses as lodging. Cabooses, when used at all, were drawn from “pools” and no longer assigned to individual conductors.

However, the caboose is not dead.  The image still sears in the memory of rail enthusiasts.  You can even buy and rent cabooses.  You can also rent hotel rooms in old cabooses used as lodges and bed and breakfasts.

caboose 3