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Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, a world class museum of railroad history in Strasburg, PA.

Pioneering Women of the Railroad Pre WW II         

Women track workers 1918.
First women section hands on the Pennsylvania Railroad at Summerhill, PA, about 1918.
Picture perfect Americana: a little boy plays with his brand new trains, a birthday gift from grandpa. Often left out of this picture is the sister, waiting by her brother’s side, hoping for a chance to take the throttle of this miniature iron horse.

From the strenuous task of laying track to the more socially acceptable modeling for ads, the railroad provided a variety of jobs for women. The female connection with railroading goes back as far as the railroads themselves. Rebecca Lukens, for example, held the lofty position of president of the Brandywine Rolling Mill in 1825. The mill was known for manufacturing fine boilerplates used in locomotives.

Kate Shelley of Boone, Iowa, the daughter of Michael Shelly, a section foreman for the Chicago & Northwestern Railway, saved the lives of some of the crew of No. 11. on a stormy night in 1861. Near midnight, a restless 15-year-old Kate heard two odd taps of a locomotive’s bell, a loud crash and the hissing of hot metal dropped into icy water. She knew it was No. 11, submerged in the swiftly moving waters of Honey Creek. Knowing that the Atlantic Express No. 4 was due to arrive in minutes, Kate rushed out into the raging storm. Guided by a lantern, she raced up a hill and through the woods. Kate crawled out on the distorted remains of the railroad bridge and cried out to anyone that could hear. Ed Wood, the engineer, replied. She assured him that she would run to nearby Moingona to summon help.

Kate Shelley.In order to accomplish her mission, Kate had to cross a long bridge over the flooded Des Moines River, which was difficult to cross in the light of day - due to the spacing of the ties - much less the dark of night. She also ran the risk of being struck by an approaching locomotive.

After safely completing the crossing, Kate ran to the station. After some effort to convince the men that she was not crazy, she was loaded aboard a locomotive to serve as guide. They would need to cross the creek to reach the surviving men, and it proved necessary for Kate to lead the rescuers down the right of way to the site of the disaster.

Due to their endeavors, Ed Wood was rescued as was the brakeman, Adam Agar. Unfortunately they were unable to save John O'Neil, a west section foreman, Pat Donahue, an east section foreman and A. P. Olmstead, a fireman whose body was never recovered. For her selfless actions, Kate was given a car of hard coal, two barrels of flour, a chest of tea, a sack of coffee, potatoes, soap and clothing by the railroad.

Believe it or not, this was not the last time Kate Shelley would find herself at the site of a train wreck. On August 1, 1899, No. 9, a mail train traveling at speeds upwards of 80 miles per hour, left the 53˚curve, injuring seven people and killing four. Kate and her sister were among the first to begin caring for the injured until a train was dispatched to take the survivors to the hospital. Kate was offered a job with the Northwestern in 1903, where she worked in Moingona as station agent, selling tickets and billing freight. The trainmen scheduled a special stop to take Kate to and from work at the station. They did so until her death on January 21, 1912.

In 1855, the Baltimore & Ohio hired four women. Catherine Shirley and Susan Morningstar hired on as charwomen and Margaret Carter worked as a restaurant keeper. Bridget Doheny’s actual occupation with the railroad is unknown. The women kept the station in Baltimore in top condition, as did the many other domestics hired thereafter by the railroad, quietly going about their "women's work” with little notice.

A Miss E. F. Sawyer took her place at the telegraph in 1872 for the Burlington in Montgomery, Illinois. Miss Sawyer was reputedly the first American, female telegraph operator. Women performed well as telegraphers, as many were daughters of station agents and had grown up with the musical tapping of the telegraph.

Women were about to gain a place on the forefront of the railroad expansion due to Mr. Fred Harvey, who owned dining establishments in the west. The Harvey Girls, as they were known, were primarily midwestern and eastern women, looking for opportunity. They were civilized and highly professional, with their plain dresses and starched collars, bringing refinement to the west as well as to the railroad men that many would eventually marry.

Women on the railroads worked diligently and efficiently, missing less time on the job than their male counterparts. They knew that turning in a poor job performance meant that they were more likely to be replaced than a man. Annie Gouchnauer was a good example of this model of competency. She began her career as an upholsterer's helper with the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1886 and retired in 1937 after fifty one years of dedicated service. Another example of dedication on the part of women railroad workers is Miss Nannie Taver who was reportedly a mere fourteen years of age when she took the job of station agent in 1889 for the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis.

One profound influence on a young woman's choice to work for the railroad could have been her family. The woman’s decision often had as much to do with the fact that her father and brothers were railroad workers as the rather high income that railroad work afforded. For example, Katherine L. Dicks’ father and grandfather both worked for the railroad. Her grandfather laid rail. However, Katherine followed in the footsteps of her father, enjoying the occupation of ticket seller. She hired out in 1898, on what was to become the Nickel Plate. In 1901, Katherine became a full time agent-operator in Royerton, Indiana for thirty dollars a month.

Phoebe Snow publicity photo.More "lady like" jobs with the railroad became available to women when a public relations project made the striking Gibson Girl of the 1900s synonymous with the glamour of riding the rails.

The fictional "Phoebe Snow" character of Delaware, Lackawanna & Western fame emerged in 1904 and was used by the railroad in its advertising until just before World War I. Phoebe promoted the cleanliness of the line’s "Road of Anthracite" because her fashionable and pristine dress would "stay white from noon 'til night" all the way to Buffalo. Portrayed by actress Marian Murray, Phoebe Snow’s public appearances and publicity photos were eventually curtailed due to the government's control of the railroads for the war effort.

The Phoebe Snow campaign was put on hold by the war, but the hostilities overseas called for more women to take up occupations in the railroad industry. Although women were engaged to temporarily replace the fighting men, many remained in railroad careers after the war. Most women who had previously worked outside the home came from factories, service or non railroad clerical jobs. Those who were new to the workforce were often wives of servicemen, deserted wives, widows and women seeking their first jobs due to war-related economic inflation. Wages for many of the women working for the railroads were quite substantial, ranging from $60 to $105 per month. Earnings for seamstresses were at the low end while office employees were compensated at the higher end of the salary scale. Such large numbers of women came to the railroad seeking work that by October 1918 there were 101,785 women employed in the industry, a three-fold increase over the 31,400 women employed just a year before.

The majority of women employed by the railroads worked in the clerical field. They were often preferred for these positions over their male counterparts because women were thought to be "content with detailed monotonous work, less likely to think of job advancement and less anxious to get out and rustle around." Unfortunately, this was the sort of attitude that women had to contend with among their male superiors and peers.

Woman handing message to engineer.Women did perform more labor intensive duties on the railroad, working as shop helpers, crane operators, air brake cleaners, coremakers, welders and oxyacetylene cutters. Fourteen women held jobs as coppersmiths, 370 were machinists, thirty five blacksmiths, six boilermakers, as well as numerous sheet metal workers and pipe fitters. Women in the railroad industry faced discrimination at every turn. They were refused entrance to the machinists' union and shopmen actively discouraged companies from hiring and retaining female employees. Fearing competition for jobs, many men pressed for legislation that would enact lifting requirements and restrict the number of hours a woman could work. Some men went as far as refusing to work alongside women, forcing supervisors to remove women from their jobs.

At the close of World War I, most women holding positions in male-dominated fields were laid off so that returning soldiers could resume their jobs. Women working in the less-coveted and traditionally female-identified clerical and domestic positions, however, were able to retain their posts. In this way, women in the industry continued to provide support services essential to the efficient and effective operation of the nation’s railroads even after the war.

Women in Railroading - World War II and Later

Adapted from an article in Milepost, the Journal of the Friends of the Museum, in March 1999, by Traci Ray.  Ms. Ray is currently a Visitor Services Guide at the Museum.
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