The Daily Gamecock

Cockaboose is game day tradition unlike any other

The Cockaboose railroad has 22 cars, and can be found behind Williams-Brice Stadium. Fans gather here during tailgating before home football games.
The Cockaboose railroad has 22 cars, and can be found behind Williams-Brice Stadium. Fans gather here during tailgating before home football games.

Anyone who spends time in Columbia quickly learns the annoyance of trains, but there is one train Gamecock fans, in particular, don’t mind. 

The line of 22 converted railroad cars, known as the Cockaboose, is an active tailgate site that sits on an inactive piece of railroad beside Williams-Brice Stadium. Every car is painted garnet and looks nearly identical from the outside, but the interiors are subject to the taste of each individual owner. Most have wood floors and come complete with all sorts of appliances.

“Everybody finished them out in different ways; most of them were decorated quite nice,” former owner Susie Carlson said. “They had the big screen TVs, and we had a big long bar in ours, and they have nice little kitchens, and they have a bathroom and nice areas to sit. And it was fun to go in all the different ones to see how everybody had individualized their particular unit.”

Columbia businessmen Ed Robinson and Carl Howard are credited with the idea of converting and selling abandoned Illinois Central Railroad cars. The railroad cars were first collected and sold in 1990.

Each railroad car sold out in a mere two days for $45,000 each and had undergone no renovations since their original use. Just a short distance away from the original 22 lay a few larger railcars that were fashioned for the same tailgating purpose in 2005.

Each Cockaboose can still be bought or sold, typically for more than the price of an actual home. The most recent sale was in April 2021, when a duo with a shared deck sold for around $379,000, but the asking price for single units can range from around $200,000 to around $400,000.

There are many things that owners love about the Cockabooses as a tailgate spot, including the location and the comradery between owners and visiting fans.

“The beauty of it, which I thought was pretty cool, was you’d always have these people from visiting teams, fans, and they would always want to come in and check it out, and they’d leave and go, 'Wow, this is cool,'” former owner Stan Harpe said. “The location is probably the key issue there, that it is just right there beside the stadium ... You’re right there, you lock the door, and you walk 50 yards and you’re inside the football stadium.”

Often times, owners will also visit other cars.

“The fun thing was that you could go from one Cockaboose to the next and visit friends. The people in the next Cockaboose were good friends of ours, so we would go back and forth,” Carlson said.

Being an actual train, the Cockaboose sets itself aside from other tailgate traditions.

“You hear about it all the time, is the novelty. It’s unlike any other tailgate experience in the country, and I think that in that uniqueness of the Cockaboose is what separates it from many others aspects,” railcar owner Jeff Easterling said. “A lot of universities, especially in the SEC, have that (novelty). What I’d say is no one that we’ve found has any experience similar to the Cockaboose.”

Many people who have had the luxury of tailgating at a Cockaboose describe it as unbelievable.

“My wife jokes that she never wants to go back to a regular outdoor tailgate because we’ve been, quite frankly, spoiled by the ability to have access to a railcar or Cockaboose,” Easterling said. "Certainly, the Cockaboose is something that's recognized across the country as something that is unique to South Carolina.”


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