Susie, a Trailblazer

a foreword by Patrick C. Morrison
director, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania

When I first met Susie during her visit to our museum in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, on April 22, 2017, I was captivated by Susie’s spirit, her great enthusiasm for trains, and her many treasured memories of her work on the railroad. I have always thought that if I could have ten great years doing something that I love professionally, then I could die happy. Well, Susie had fifteen years doing just that—something that she loved—and still does.

During her visit, I had an opportunity to walk with Susie around the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania’s spacious Rolling Stock Hall. During her visit, she climbed aboard several of the locomotives that she once operated, including the GG1 4935, the E44 4465, and the GP30 2233. With the help of Curator Allan Martin, we also climbed inside the Amtrak AEM7 915, which is stored outdoors. The 915 is a favorite of Susie’s. It’s one of my favorites, too. All the while, you could see her eyes light up as she sat in the engineer’s seat, no doubt remembering what it was like to power a heavy freight train or a speedy passenger train.

There were some things I wanted to ask Susie, but I was afraid to do so. While I had only just met her despite the two of us having corresponded back and forth for a few weeks prior to her visit, I knew there was much more to her story than what she could share with me that day. While she did not speak of the struggle that she must have undoubtedly endured in a male-dominated profession, I could tell that the job was not always as glorious and glamorous as it is portrayed in children’s storybooks and in the popular consciousness, especially for women.

That is why I feel honored to have met Susie, a trailblazer and a hero in my view. And when I look at my mother’s generation and of those who followed, especially my wife and my young daughter, I am very grateful to Susie and others for helping blaze that trail to diversify our workforce and opportunities available to women. When I look at my daughter, I think, You can follow your dream, just as Susie has done.

In 1978, when Susie began her career as a locomotive engineer, women were still very much outsiders within the operating crafts in the railroad industry. More than a century earlier, women like Susie were more likely to take on clerical or domestic roles in the railroad industry. By the 1850s, women began to be hired as telegraphers, secretaries, operators, and agents, although among less frequented stations. While American history carries countless examples of women entering the railroad workforce as attendants, shop workers, and car cleaners—even occasionally as engineers and firemen—opportunities beyond the more traditional roles for women always appear few and far between. Even where progress seemed evident, efforts restricted the numbers of hours women worked and the kinds of positions they held.

During World Wars I and II, to replace the draft-diminished male workforce, women were employed in large numbers in virtually every area of the industry. However, when soldiers returned home, women often found themselves either laid off or retaining less-coveted and traditionally female clerical and domestic duties. Their extraordinary efforts during those years proved that women could not only do the jobs that men did, they did them—and quite well. They could also hold down families and take care of their homes at the same time. By the 1960s, the situation began to change again, if very gradually. In the early twenty-first century, although much has improved, Class I railroads—and other industries—can do much more to level the playing field. Opportunities continue to arise, and women continue to prove themselves more than equal to the task.

The preceding simply provides historical context for the meeting that took place on April 22, 2017. It was just an ordinary day for some, but not for me. For me, it was not ordinary. I was just a few weeks away from starting a new job as director of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, and I experienced the time with Susie as distinctly special. When I meet people who worked for a railroad, I often think about the fact that challenges I will face in my new job are nothing when compared to what railroaders like Susie must have experienced on a regular basis: being on call 24/7 and enduring long hours on the road away from home and family, unplanned equipment and maintenance headaches, and dangers on the right-of-way—just to name a few.

When I see how thrilled and overjoyed Susie was to be back in the engineer’s seats of some of the locomotives she once operated, I can imagine much more of her story. As I begin a new chapter in my own career, I long to learn more from each important and exciting chapter in Susie’s time as a locomotive engineer.

And what an amazing journey it must have been! Like you, I am glad I cracked open this book to read Susie’s reminiscences about her time “on the road” as an engineer for Amtrak and Conrail.

All aboard!