Local roads — where there were any — were notorious for mud-holes or snow banks. Most of them had been built by local farmers working out their taxes. The roadbed was no wider than needed for two vehicles to pass with care. The least amount of dirt to be moved spread the little money that was available to the greatest possible length. Shoulders were missing — the grade dropped almost perpendicularly to the ditch. Horse drawn vehicles could simply take to the fields and go around.
In winter some form of protection was necessary for freighters or settlers when most travel was done over the muskegs. The caboose was nothing new. The first horses and oxen over any pioneer road pulled them. They came in all forms and sizes. A cabin built over sleigh runners served the purpose. Since drivers needn’t watch traffic from side roads, no windows were necessary nor were they desirable. A hole in front to peer through with another smaller one to pass the reins through to drive was sufficient.
A newcomer to the country might be startled to see a row of these often rough and unwieldy “winter homes” parked along the streets, each one with a stovepipe through the roof, smoking cozily. It indicated that a supply of fuel was ready to feed a small stove. There was probably a bunk where the driver slept if on an overnight trip. Certainly there was storage for any perishable foods that came along, if the caboose were to be overnight on the road.
The caboose saved many a man and his family from severe frostbite or even death on the road when temperatures went down below 400 or 500 especially in a wind. Horses could not work then because their lungs would freeze. But teamsters knew when to stop to blanket the beasts and let them turn their heads away from the wind. Oats and some hay from inside the caboose or from a rack outside enabled them to keep up body temperature.
The Athabasca, Peace River and Edson Trails saw numberless cabooses. Whole families lived in them for a month or six weeks or more. Babies were born in these pioneer “campers” on occasion. Many a poker game went on all night while the tiny stove was stoked, and the horses or oxen fed and rested. Many children drove themselves to the country schoolhouses, which all had stables as part of the facilities.
Until the Second World War, mail day in Dawson Creek and Pouce Coupe was on a Friday. People arrived from as far away as Hudson’s Hope and Rose Prairie –occasionally even from Fort Nelson three hundred miles north.
Folks usually killed several birds with one stone by bringing in grain to sell, picking up freight and mail and replenishing supplies. The trip gave the women-folk a chance to visit and ward off cabin fever from too much isolation, and perhaps attend the Friday night movie, no matter how bad the weather.
The caboose had one advantage over the trucks and cars which replaced them almost completely by the 1940’s — if the driver fell asleep from boredom, or from an overdose of the only tranquilizer in common use in that day, the horses would take the outfit safely home.