Narrow transportation

Five Women Transport Pioneers – The Age of the Railroad

Written by

Union Pacific, Corporate Communications

In 1974, Bonnie Leake broke the glass ceiling when she became the first woman accepted by the Union Pacific Railroad to train as a locomotive engineer.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, Union Pacific (UP) is sharing the stories of five women who made their mark in the transportation industry.

The railroad is and has been a male-dominated industry. While men have taken center stage in the railroad, that doesn’t mean women haven’t played an important role in railroad history.

“Women have always been a part of the railroads and the broader transportation industry,” said Debra Schrampfer, Director of Diversity and AVP Workforce Resources for AT THE TOP. “When the railroad moved west, it was no different from homesteading. Although they didn’t have the same opportunities, the women were there – burdened with the physical labor, facing the harsh elements and sometimes succumbing to the risks. Despite the gender limitations of the time, some spectacular women found a way to write their own story.

Here are the stories of five female transportation pioneers that demonstrate the significant contributions women have made to passenger rail, freight transportation and the transportation industry.

original |  Move Sir exhibition
The Union Pacific Museum’s 2017 exhibit “Move On, Sir: Women Working on the Railroad”.

Mary Walton

Mary Walton was an early environmental pioneer. In 1879, she developed a way to deflect emissions from factory chimneys using water tanks. This technology was later adapted to steam engines, which emitted large plumes of soot as they rolled over the tracks.

As elevated trains became more common in major American cities, Walton turned to noise pollution. Although useful for travel, these trains were excessively noisy, creating a cacophonous environment for those who lived nearby. Walton lived in Manhattan, so she knew about the problem and she decided to solve it.

Walton installed a model railroad in his basement to test potential solutions. The winning idea was to cradle the rails in a box-like wooden frame, which was painted with tar, lined with cotton, and filled with sand. These materials absorbed the vibrations of the rails and, in turn, also reduced the noise. In 1891, Walton patented her soundproofing device, to which she later sold the rights to the Metropolitan Railroad of New York. Walton’s invention both contributed to the success of the railroad and improved the quality of life for those who lived near elevated trains.

Sarah Clark Kidder

At 62, Sarah Clark Kidder became the first woman in the world to run a railroad. It was 1901 and Kidder’s husband of 31 years, John Flint Kidder, had just passed away. John was appointed president of the California-based Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad (NCNGRR) in 1884, and after his death Sarah’s inheritance gave him control of three-quarters of NCNGRR’s share capital. But the role of president didn’t just go to her: an overwhelming majority elected her to serve as the new head of the railroad.

Despite having little business experience, Sarah Clark Kidder has enjoyed resounding success as president. When she took on the role, the railroad was facing serious debts. Kidder set out to attract more freight and passengers to the railroad, positioning it for greater profits. At the end of 1903, just two years into its tenure, the NCNGRR had its most profitable year ever.

Under Kidder’s direction, the railroad paid off the $79,000 of financed debt and $184,122 of interest on the debt; declared $117,000 in dividends on the company’s shares and added $180,000 to this surplus. When Kidder retired in 1913, the NCNGRR was in the best financial shape it had ever had or ever would be.

Reviews Lobdell

Avis Lobdell not only worked for the railroad, but also made it more comfortable for other women to ride the rails. In 1935, UP President William Jeffers wanted to provide a first-class experience for passengers traveling by coach (as opposed to one of the railroad’s luxury trains). Streamliners). So he asked Lobdell to mount UP’s Challenger train, which was intended to provide exceptional service at Depression-era prices, and ask passengers how UP could improve their train riding experience.

Lobdell spoke with the passengers as she rode the Challenger throughout its journey from Chicago to Los Angeles. Through her research, Lobdell found that women, who made up more than half of coach passengers, had a number of pain points when traveling by train. In particular, women mentioned the inconveniences they encountered when traveling alone or with only their children.

While many did not take Lobdell’s research seriously, Jeffers’s saw its value. He established the women’s travel department and appointed Lobdell as head. There she was responsible for hiring nurses to assist single women, mothers traveling unaided, the elderly, and the infirm. The railroad also set up women-only cars, which nurses/stewardesses were loaded with. Even the driver of the passengers had to get permission before they could enter.

the Challenger became one of the most successful trains in UP history; there’s no doubt that Lobdell’s efforts were a big part of that success.

Bonnie Leaked

In 1974, Bonnie Leake broke the glass ceiling when she became the first woman accepted by UP to train as a locomotive engineer.

Leake had joined the railroad in 1966 as an office clerk and later served as a crew dispatcher. As a single mother, she had higher goals, however, and they landed squarely on becoming a locomotive engineer. “I saw how much money men were making, and I knew I could do the job,” Leake said in a 2017 inside track item. In 1974, after training for six months and meeting the physical requirements (as well as tolerating intense scrutiny), Leake achieved his dream of becoming an engineer, running trains from Las Vegas to Milford, Utah, and Yermo , California. She accomplished all of this. before the age of 30.

When she retired in 2007, Leake had served on the railroad for nearly 40 years. “If you think of yourself as an equal, you’ll end up being treated that way,” she said.

In January 2021, Leake died at the age of 76.

Edwina Justus

original |  Edwina Justus
Edwina “Curly” Justus

Edwina “Curlie” Justus was the first black locomotive engineer for UP. But his groundbreaking railroad career didn’t begin there, and it wasn’t the only notable “first” of his life.

Growing up in Omaha, Neb., Justus was the first black student enrolled at Brown Park Elementary School. She graduated from high school in 1960 and worked as a cabler for Western Electric for the next eight years. In 1969, she enrolled at the University of Nebraska, where she studied to become a social worker.

While at Western Electric, she applied for a position at UP, but was denied due to her gender. That didn’t stop Justus from pursuing a career in the railroad. In 1972, a friend told him that UP was accepting applications for open office positions. This time, Justus was not turned away. In 1973, she left college to take a job as a traction motor clerk. At the time, she was one of five black women working for the company.

In 1976, at the age of 34, Justus became the first black female engineer. This role brought her and her husband to North Platte, Neb. She spent the next 22 years hauling items such as livestock, automobiles, and airplane wings to Cheyenne, Wyo., and Denver, Colorado, always enjoying the scenery as she went. “When I was in school, I liked to daydream” Justus recalled in 2017. “A teacher told me that I would never be able to look out the window; she was wrong.

After retiring in 1998, Justus returned to Omaha with her husband, who also retired as an engineer.

In 2017, Justus met his first fellow engineer, Bonnie Leake, at an exhibit at UP’s Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The exhibition, titled “Move over, sir: women working on the railwayrecounted the experiences and accomplishments of Justus and Leake, as well as other women in the industry. Justus also recounts her career in her book “Union Pacific Engineer: An Autobiography of UP’s First Black Woman Locomotive Engineer”, which she published in December 2021.

original |  Leake and Justus at the exhibition
Leake and Justus first meet at the opening of the Union Pacific Museum’s 2017 exhibit.

Documenting History, Increasing Representation

Looking back on the contributions of women helps us recognize their accomplishments and ensure they retain their hard-earned place in railroad history. But women’s stories can also be a catalyst for creating a more inclusive future.

“We are so fortunate at Union Pacific that many of our incredible women, who have accomplished ‘firsts,’ have shared their stories with us,” Schrampfer said. “Documenting these stories is key to understanding the changing role of women in the workplace and inspiring future generations.”

The railroad may be a male-dominated industry, but UP is working to change that. We have set a goal of doubling the number of women in our workforce by 2030 and are committed to increasing the representation of women and people of color in our industry. Visit our Diversity and inclusion page to learn more about our mission, vision and strategy.

This article first appeared on UP’s Track Record website.