South Carolina's Cockaboose Railroad offers a unique tailgating venue

Saturday, September 22, 2012 | 4:09 p.m. CDT; updated 7:10 p.m. CDT, Saturday, September 22, 2012
South Carolina fans walk by the Cockaboose Railroad — 22 cabooses next to Williams-Brice Stadium which provide select fans with private party spaces to tailgate before the game.

COLUMBIA, S.C. - In the shadow of Williams-Brice Stadium, about 50 feet behind the south end zone, are 22 old, stationary railroad cars. Each one looks identical on the outside, painted maroon with a fighting gamecock serving as an emblem in the middle.

On the inside, though, no two railroad cars are alike. They are lavish, extravagant, unique. They represent the gold standard of South Carolina tailgating.

For the last 22 years, “The Cockaboose Railroad” has been the place to be on game day.

It all started in 1990, when local businessmen Ed R. Robinson and Carl F. Howard decided to make use of the abandoned railroad track just south of the stadium. They bought the track, as well as 22 out-of-use railroad cars from the Illinois Central Railroad.

After a maroon paint job, all 22 cars were sold for $45,000 each on the first day they were available.

Though they owned some prime real estate a short walk from the stadium, it was the responsibility of each owner to decorate the inside, which looked exactly like one would imagine an abandoned railroad car would look.

“Honest to goodness, when they put it in here it was a regulation railroad caboose. Inside, it had a coal stove, just like a rail car. We had to come in and completely gut the durn thing,” Joe Taylor, one of the original owners who still owns Caboose No. 22, said. “It didn’t even have a bathroom.”

Taylor, the former secretary of commerce for the state of South Carolina, has seen the community embrace the Cockaboose Railroad as the years have gone on. Each car is unique, with the owners decorating the inside as they see fit.

Taylor’s car, which is 30 feet long and 9 feet wide, features a brown leather couch that faces a flat screen television. Deeper inside, there is a counter, which is completely covered by finger foods, followed by a kitchen with a sink, refrigerator and microwave.

The walls are white, covered on all sides by pictures of Williams-Brice Stadium and the South Carolina baseball team, which won back-to-back national championships in 2010 and 2011.

Taylor, wearing a white polo with black horizontal stripes, khaki shorts and a black belt with maroon gamecocks littered across it, explained that the look and use of Caboose No. 22 has changed throughout the years.

“When I built this thing I was still a bachelor. The reason I did it was because I like to bird hunt a lot. Football season and bird hunting season are the same, and I had a big shower in here, the whole works. I could come straight from hunting, change clothes and go to the game,” Taylor said. “Once I met my bride, she decided all that stuff needed to leave.”

Taylor’s caboose, the last in the line on the far southwest side, is truly one of a kind.

In fact, they all are.

The owner of Caboose No. 21, Mike Drake, decorated his interior to have a more traditional, Victorian feel. The couch is maroon with gold floral patterns stamped all across it. The walls are covered with old paintings of birds and South Carolina landscapes. Next to the couch is a mantle, held up by long white pillars.

Only one thing sits on the mantle – a bottle of wine.

“Spurrier Vineyards,” it reads on the front, with a picture of the ol’ ball coach pumping his fist on the label.

The other cars, of course, are all decorated differently. Some have striped walls. Some walls are pink. Some have hardwood floors, while other floors are tiled or marble.

“This right here is all-encompassing. TVs on both sides and one on top. Bathroom in the back. Liquor over here. Ice in the bottom. Cold beer outside,” Marty Adams said, as he frantically pointed to all his caboose’s unique features. “Boy, it don’t get no better."

“And when the losing team comes by, we get to make fun of them because they’re out there and we’re in here!”

While originally purchasing his car for $45,000, Taylor says he routinely gets offers of $350,000 to sell the caboose. After 22 years of ownership, though, he isn’t willing to let it go.

“This thing only gets used seven days a year. I’ve got young kids, 17 and 14, and they really get a kick out of it,” he said. “I think it’s one of those things where if you sold it and then decided you missed it, you’d never get it back.”

Although the cars don’t move and the price of ownership rises each year, “The Cockaboose Railroad” continues to appeal to Gamecock fans and visitors alike. As Missouri fans circled Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, they inevitably drifted toward the maroon cabooses on the south side, taking pictures in front of them and asking the owners for a personal tour.

Brian Harrison, another of the original 22 owners, doesn’t look at his caboose as a 30-foot-by-9-foot steel box. To him and many others, it’s tailgating paradise.

“It’s just a good experience. We got air conditioning, closed circuit TVs. You can put a spread of food in there,” Harrison said as he sipped away on a beer. “Rain or shine, it’s the tailgating spot.”

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