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Page 2 / Ideas, Trends, Style and Buzz

All Aboard? Don't Forget the Women

Two writers revive the role of forgotten workers in the history of the railroad, throughan organization and a play.

March 17, 2000|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They've been working on the railroad--and not just to pass the time away. For more than 160 years, women have been in railroading--as telegraphers, Harvey Girls, stewardesses and, yes, engineers and conductors, architects, yardmasters, welders, brakemen and firemen. Woodland Hills-based writing partners Sheri Moses, 32, and Danette Lindeman, 35, often drawn to railroad sites while seeking literary inspiration, became intrigued with the historic role of women in railroading.

In time, they found their way to the Travel Town Railroad Museum in Griffith Park. They were so impressed by what they discovered that they wrote a play that has become part of the museum's annual Women's History Month celebration.

"Nobody knows anything about women in railroading," said Lindeman.

Last year, the pair e-mailed 300 venues, such as historical societies and museums, seeking feedback on the subject. The overwhelmingly positive response, said Moses, led them to found the International Society for the Preservation of Women in Railroading.

Among those Moses and Lindeman found through their research was 90-year-old Ida Petersen of Huntington Beach. In a recent phone interview, Petersen recalled setting out from Garnett, Kan., as a starry-eyed teenager to become a Harvey Girl.

Starting in the 1880s, Harvey Girls were waitresses at Harvey House restaurants in towns and cities along the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. In those days, notes Beverly Hills author Nancy Smiler Levinson in her 1997 book, "She's Been Working on the Railroad," a waitress was seen as "socially inferior and morally suspect."

But transplanted Englishman Fred Harvey changed that in 1883 when he began recruiting "young women of good character, attractive and intelligent, 18 to 30." He specified that they wear no makeup or jewelry. Starting pay: $17.50 a month, plus room and board.

"We wore a black uniform about 7 inches from the floor, a white blouse, a little apron and a little black tie," recalled Petersen. "We'd work six months, then go home for a vacation. They paid your way. Then you could go anyplace there was an opening. They were wonderful years," she said. She worked in Albuquerque and in Santa Fe, living with other Harvey Girls "either in a hotel or a home that had a room available."

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She met her husband, Lawrence, while working in San Bernardino. He drove one of his family's taxis and "always came down early and would have a bowl of soup while waiting for the train to come in."

Among those who contacted Moses and Lindeman was Anne Oehlschlaegser, who has a degree in philosophy from Radcliffe and is the only female conductor on the New England Southern Railroad.

And then, Moses observed, "there were women hobos. They were the type of women that people didn't want in their town."

Sue Ann Taggart of San Diego, a former Santa Fe clerk, wrote to Moses and Lindeman about her grandmother, who in the '20s was a railroad telegrapher in Kansas. The stories she'd told Taggart included tales of drunken cowboys on horseback circling and then shooting at the boxcar in which the women lived. Her grandmother took to tucking a pearl-handled revolver into her garter.

From the Burlington Route Historical Society in St. Louis came a history of the Zephyrettes, the red-caped hostesses on pre-World War II Zephyr trains. They were dog-sitters and baby-sitters, made dining car reservations, found fourths for bridge--and at least one delivered a baby.

Levinson learned that, starting in the 1830s, women entered the ranks of railroad workers as domestics. The two world wars created new opportunities, but, she found, "women railroaders have not always been accepted or welcomed" by their bosses or male co-workers, were often paid less and subjected to harassment.

According to her research, the number of women working in railroading peaked at about 260,000 in 1945. She estimates that 27,000 women hold railroad jobs today, less than 10% of the total work force. Most do office work.

Another Moses-Lindeman contact, Lois Tait of Perris, was "a wannabe Harvey Girl."

Dissuaded by her father, she became a teacher instead. Now in her mid-70s, she is founder of the Harvey Girls Historical Society at the Orange Empire Railroad Museum in Perris.

Harvey, she said, had wanted male waiters but the men he could hire out West "got paid, went to a bar, got drunk and landed in jail. He said, 'If this is the way it's going to be, I'll get women.' " Before most of the restaurants closed in the mid-'50s, they'd employed about 100,000 young women.

To Tait, the Harvey Girls are "a part of women's history that's been neglected." In an era when working women often were at the mercy of the men who hired them, Harvey offered young women "an opportunity to go west and live in a safe environment and be respected."

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Darlene Sexton, 26, is one of a new generation of women discovering the romance of railroading. Sexton, an administrative assistant for a title company and mother of a 4-year-old son, came to Travel Town as a volunteer, to work off a community service commitment for traffic violations.

Within two years she became the first woman engineer and the first woman engineering instructor on Travel Town's full-scale trains.

"It's the most awesome thing," she said. "If I wasn't a mom, my dream would be to work the Union Pacific or Santa Fe." As for Moses and Lindeman, they are ready to take their women-in-railroading group "wherever the tracks may lead."

"ISPWR . . .The Play" will be performed Saturday at noon and 3 p.m. at the Travel Town Railroad Museum, 5200 Zoo Drive. Admission is free.

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