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Looking back, it’s hard to believe how naïve I was. I never imagined how difficult it would be, the stresses I would face, and the heart wrenching situations I would encounter. Since leaving that job, I have not once missed it or wished to do it again, but at the same time, I can appreciate the value of the experience, both in my career and in my ability to face other challenges in my life.
Back in the 1970s, when I started working at the Burlington Northern (BN) in Lincoln, Neb., a union job at the railroad was a very lucrative blue-collar job and highly sought after, and as a result, nepotism flourished. I realized this the first day on the job when several people approached me at various times during the shift and asked me who I was related to at the BN, and were shocked when I timidly responded, “No one.”
I admit, I never considered a railroad career, and my entrée into a railroad position was a little unorthodox. I had been working as a keypunch operator and decided I could make more money as a computer programmer, so I enrolled in a six-month computer programming course at the Electronic Computer Programming Institute (ECPI) in downtown Lincoln. ECPI also offered placement services as part of its curriculum.
On Friday morning, Nov. 2, 1973, the director of ECPI called me into his office. He said his buddy, the freight agent at the BN, was looking for a keypunch operator, and he naturally thought of me. “Sue, I know your motivation for coming to school was to get a better paying job so you can put your husband through college after he returns from overseas, but you should know I won’t be able to find you a starting programming position for more than $400 per month. I know it feels like a step backward, but as a keypunch operator at the railroad, you can make twice that.” Well, that certainly caught my attention.
He arranged for me to meet with the freight agent at the BN depot first thing Monday morning. Although the agent didn’t question my keypunching skills, he was very concerned about my availability, since I had a one-year-old daughter at home and my husband was overseas. He explained about how I might not be able to hold a regular position and I may have to work from an extra board and be on call 24/7. I explained that I was staying with my best friend and her husband, and both my mother and mother-in-law lived in town. “I guess you could say I have an extra-board of my own.” As if to test this claim, he said if I could start work at the main office in Hobson Yard by 3:30 that afternoon, I was hired. I responded more confidently than I felt, “No problem.” He then sent me to have a physical. They checked my heart (it was beating), and tested my eyes for color-blindness. Next, I met with Jay, the fellow handling the clerk roster.
By the time 3:30 rolled around, I was at the yard office and being shown around by the clerical supervisor in charge of the clerks entering data into their COMPASS computer system, which was their perpetual car inventory system. My first shift (4:00 pm to midnight) was uneventful. My job was to enter waybill information for all the railcars released from local industry that day. I keypunched the data onto cards and fed the cards into a card reader. Either a confirmation or an error message came out on the attached printer. Although I was unconvinced my progress was acceptable, since I had generated and fixed an abundance of errors, I must have actually done okay. I was able to successfully complete all the entries during my shift, to the surprise of the graveyard shift. They said they usually had to finish them.
Most important, I passed muster with Jay and immediately bid on the afternoon waybill entry position with Tuesday and Wednesday rest days. Since there was a shortage of clerks, a dislike for entering waybills and the unattractive rest days, I was able to hold that position for about six months. But, after a series of job eliminations in the clerical ranks, I was “bumped” off my cushy job.
All of the sudden, I was shocked to find myself on the extra board, and seemingly at the mercy of Jay’s whims. I was thrown onto all sorts of jobs with minimal skill requirements, such as verifying cars by standing out in the weather and reading the car numbers into a tape recorder, chalking setout locations on the sides of grain cars, hauling crews, and my favorite, janitorial duties. On my own time, I trained on as many office jobs as I could requiring COMPASS data entry, and started picking up more of those. At Jay’s suggestion, I also trained on the tower clerk’s position, a posting most clerks avoided. That soon became one of my favorite assignments, and I was able to bid on that position on the night shift and hold it for many months.
The Hobson Yard tower was actually a 10 x 10-foot room with windows on all sides and perched on a corner of the roof of the two-story yard office. Access was via an open metal grate staircase on the outside of the building. In the winter, the tower was heated by an old-fashioned freestanding radiator that provided the perfect spot to heat up a can of soup or stew for the occasions when there was actually time to eat. There were three desks, one for the trainmaster, one for the yardmaster, and one for the tower clerk. There was a phone on each desk, each sharing the same multiple phone lines. The tower clerk’s desk was mostly covered with a large tablet containing daily spreadsheets, on which was recorded all the inbound and outbound trains, and all the times associated with activities performed on those trains, such as arrival and departure times, locomotive on and off, car inspection completion, and crews on duty and onboard. Although I kept very busy making calls and gathering information for the spreadsheet, and assisting the trainmaster and yardmaster as needed, the real action was at the yardmaster’s desk.
The yardmaster sat at a large radio console. Attached to the console was a microphone for radio communications via the shortwave radio, as well as the myriad of switches that were linked to various intercom boxes located in other buildings or on poles out in the yard. The yardmaster received radio calls from the locomotive engineers, intercom calls from switchmen, operators and clerks, and phone calls from just about everyone else. Very seldom was there a break in the barrage of incoming calls. After all, the yardmaster was the focal point, coordinating activities with carmen (equipment inspectors), crews, the hump, the operators and the clerical personnel, which included building a train, inspecting it, hooking up the air hoses, adding locomotives, cabooses and crews, and seeing the crews had all the necessary paperwork. The tower housed a cacophony of chatter, ringing phones, intercom buzzes, against a backdrop of rolling stock and locomotive horns. It was both scary and exciting. Everyone involved was on an adrenaline high.
There was never a dull day in the tower, and the yardmaster was faced with all sorts of unforeseeable challenges. Many of these unusual situations had to do with trying to deal with traffic volumes that exceeded the capacity of the terminal, while others were associated with adverse weather conditions. On one particularly foggy night, just after the shift change, a carman called up to the tower asking the location of the coal train that was supposed to be on the Highline. Both the tower clerk’s and the yardmaster’s turnover sheets showed the train was still there. A call to the Carling Tower operator at the east end of the yard confirmed that the train in question had arrived, but had not departed. Then another operator called to ask if there was a switch engine out by West “O”; he had a signal indicating the track was occupied. The yardmaster said no, and suggested they call a signal maintenance worker to check the track. It wasn’t long before the yardmaster received a call from the signalman: “The track is fine, but there is a coal train out here crossing West O street. It’s moving really slow and traffic is backing up.” As it turned out, when the crew was detaching the locomotives, they didn’t properly set the airbrakes, and the train just slowly and quietly drifted away in the fog.
Snow and ice also presented challenges, such as the night an inbound crew asked that someone with a pickaxe be sent to meet their train. There was an inch of ice covering the cab of the locomotive and they couldn’t get out. Or, the need for creative strategies to get rid of snow, such as loading piles of it onto flat cars or into empty hoppers that were headed out of town on southbound trains.
Unfortunately, safety regulations were pretty lax back then, and many tragic events happened as well. Rules like red flagging a track before working on cars on that track, or not getting on and off moving equipment, had not been adopted as an industry standard. Tracks were noted as being “locked out” by the yardmaster on his spreadsheet, and verbally communicated. Although accidents were infrequent, when they did occur, they were horrific. Forrest, a West Fruit Express (WFE) employee who was inspecting a refrigerated car on a bowl track, lost both legs and bled to death before he was found. Since he was working alone, the details behind the tragedy were never determined. But following that incident, WFE inspectors started working in pairs, and made it a point to red flag tracks prior to conducting inspections, at least at Hobson Yard. Forrest was a really nice man nearing retirement who would stop in the yard tower to confirm the locations of various trains, so he could locate the refrigerated cars. I enjoyed his visits immensely. I can’t help but shed a few tears as I think about him all these years later.
It was during my work as a tower clerk that I met Al, a yardmaster who also filled in as a trainmaster from time to time. He was a burly man in his early 30s who incessantly had a cigar hanging out of his mouth as he worked in the tower. My husband, now home from service, would tease me as I crawled into bed after working in the tower on the afternoon shift, with comments like, “You must have been working with Al again this evening,” or “How come you go to work smelling like a fox and come home smelling like Swisher Sweets?” These comments were not surprising, since my long hair was permeated with cigar smoke.
When working the afternoon shifts, Al would frequently convince a bunch of us (clerks and switchmen alike) to head over to the El Matador Bar on Cornhusker Highway after we got off duty. We’d get there just before last call, order a couple of drinks, and then linger after closing, since the bar was owned by a good buddy of Al’s. It was during one of these outings Al decided I should become a yardmaster. He stayed on this kick for several weeks, until I agreed to try it.
It was February 1975 when I made an appointment with the Terminal Superintendent, Mr. Huff. When I entered Huff’s office, he scowled at me. He remained seated, not offering me a chair, and asked me why I was there. I told him I wanted to become a yardmaster. He responded gruffly, “You can’t become a yardmaster.” Taken aback, I responded meekly, “Why not? His seemingly rehearsed reply was, “Three reasons. You’re too young, you haven’t been with the railroad long enough, and you’re a woman. The men will never work for you.” Knowing there was nothing I could do about my age (I was 23) or my gender, I decided to focus on my experience. “What do I need to learn to become a yardmaster?” I could tell he was anxious to get rid of me. He rose, grabbed three books from his bookcase, and handed them to me. “Read the train rules, the switchman’s handbook and the car-hire rules at the end of the equipment register.”
About six weeks later, I made another appointment. I walked into his office, plopped the books on his desk and announced cheerfully, “I’m ready to start breaking in.” For the first time he smiled at me and had a sparkle in his eyes, “You’re just stubborn enough. You might actually be able to do this.” He called the assistant superintendent into his office, introduced us, and told him to get the word out that “Sue will be breaking in as yardmaster.” I guess he figured he had nothing to lose, since back then breaking in on a new position was done on an employee’s own time.
In Lincoln, there were actually three yardmaster positions you had to be qualified on: the one in the main tower, the one at the hump, and the one at the lower yard, where they handled the switching of all the industries. Since I had worked as a tower clerk,and had not long before gotten bumped off the tower clerk job and successfully bid on a lower yard clerical position, I was fairly familiar with those two positions, so I initially focused on learning about the hump. I spent one shift a week there on my rest days for the first month. It wasn’t a very complicated job. A printer provided lists of all the cars on all the inbound trains requiring switching, and the trainmaster provided the order of the trains to be humped. The yardmaster marked up the list, assigning each car to the appropriate bowl track, radioed the information to the two tower operators who managed the manual retarders, and then provided a copy of the list to the switch foreman, so he could coordinate the uncoupling of the cars as they were pushed over the hump. Gravity would do the rest.
The printer that provided the train lists was extremely loud, so it was sequestered in its own room, about the size of a large walk-in closet. To my surprise, the ceiling and walls of the printer room were totally papered with Playboy centerfolds. The first time I showed up to break in, the switch crew clustered around me to see my initial reaction to their artistic endeavor. As I gazed around the room, one of the switchmen asked me what I thought. “Well,” I said calmly, “It looks to me like there isn’t any room for my Cosmopolitan centerfold. Where will I hang Burt?” They laughed and assured me they’d find room. Over the next couple of months, I’d occasionally get asked about Burt’s picture, and I’d respond by snapping my fingers, and saying, “Darn, I keep forgetting.” I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I hadn’t actually seen Burt Reynolds’ centerfold.
On one occasion, I was breaking in at the hump with Tom, while OJ was working as switch foreman. Tom and OJ were the two youngest yardmasters and did not have enough yardmaster seniority to hold a regular assignment. They were switchmen who worked as yardmasters off the yardmaster extra board, filling in for those who had laid off for a day, or were on vacation. They also covered the three extra shifts that were not covered by regular positions. OJ had the distinction of being the only black yardmaster. As we were taking a break for “beans” (railroad slang for lunch), Tom started explaining about how the yardmasters would get together to hold an elaborate ritual to decide if a new person was qualified to be a yardmaster. I think he could tell by my expression that I wasn’t buying it, but he pressed on anyway. He explained how each yardmaster was given a small white ball and a small black ball. Then a hat was passed around and each yardmaster voted by placing one of the balls in the hat (white for “yes” and black for “no”). At this point, OJ waved his hands in front of Tom and announced, “Whoa! Wait a minute! I’m the only yardmaster who can black ball Sue.” He said it so sweetly and sincerely, I couldn’t help but join in their laughter.
You’re probably wondering why I wasn’t shocked by all these shenanigans. I guess it’s because I grew up a tomboy, spending a good deal of time hanging around with my older brother and his pals. I never seemed to have any trouble telling the difference between threatening behavior and light-hearted fun. Many years later, a class action lawsuit alleging “sexually discriminatory employment practices” (Holden v. Burlington Northern, Inc., 1987) was settled. Although I did not directly participate in the lawsuit, I received notice that I was eligible to receive a share of the settlement, because I was a female employee during the time period in question. I declined. I had heard or read about many of the episodes alleged in the lawsuit, many of which I found truly appalling. In comparison, I felt I personally had not really suffered any action of that magnitude, and did not want to dilute the compensations due to the women who had. Ah, but I digress…
In June, Mr. Huff called me to his office to ask me how the training was going. I told him it was going well, but I wasn’t ready to start working the job for real. He assured me I was. I respectfully disagreed. He again assured me I was, and then went on to explain he had a sudden shortage of yardmasters, due to two yardmasters in the hospital and one in rehab, and he didn’t expect to get any of them back for at least two months. He wanted to activate me and two switchmen who were also breaking in. He assured me there would be a trainmaster nearby if I had any issues. With fear and trepidation abounding, I reluctantly agreed.
That summer was a nightmare. Coal trains were being pumped out of the Powder River Basin at a breakneck pace. Although the coal trains didn’t require any switching except for removing the occasional bad order car, they did require inspections, crew changes and locomotive changes, all of which took time. The yard congestion became overwhelming. One evening, I was holding Train 76 out of the yard because we had no track space open. I called the roundhouse to find out why Train 100 hadn’t got its locomotives yet. The roundhouse foreman replied, “Well, I was sort of planning to use a couple of the engines off 76.” I impatiently retorted, “76 can’t arrive until 100 leaves. Come up with another plan!”
On some of these high congestion days, Chuck, who I labeled “our cowboy trainmaster” because of his aggressive manner and wild, unconventional ideas, would order us to couple together two recently arrived inbound trains, slap engines and a caboose on it, order up a crew, and send the whole kit and caboodle to Omaha to be switched there. Omaha had a small flat yard and never received advance notice of these 150-200 car gifts. I’m glad I never had to take any of their angry calls.
For the most part, working at the main tower meant there was a trainmaster nearby, so I didn’t get much flack. But working as yardmaster at the lower yard, I was pretty much on my own. My first night there, the foreman of the Gooch Mill job acted pleasant enough, but then he started grilling me about the order in which he should pull and spot cars at our largest customer site. I just glared at him: “You’ve worked this job a lot of years. You know perfectly well how to switch Gooch Mill. I’m telling you what cars are to be placed where. I don’t care how you do it, as long as you do it safely and get it done by the end of the shift.” He appeared disappointed as he took the switch list and left. Next time I saw Al, I told him about the incident. Al explained, “Yeah, he does that to all the new yardmasters. He asks for detailed instructions and then when the work doesn’t get done, he blames it on the yardmaster. You’re the first one who didn’t fall for it.” I responded, “There’s no way I could fall for it. I’m not a switchman. I’m a clerk.” He shook his head and said in dismay, “Other yardmasters from the clerical ranks have.”
Another time I had provided instructions to an inexperienced switch foreman to go get a string of cars out of the passenger yard for Lincoln Grain. I warned him to check to make sure all the cars were coupled properly, since the crew that placed them there had probably uncoupled them at the crosswalk between the depot and the yard office. He failed to do this, and then radioed me an hour later to let me know he only had half the cars with him to spot and wanted to know if he should come back. I told him to stay there and spot the ones he had, and then return with the released loads. The day shift would have to take care of spotting the remaining empties. Once he got back to the lower yard, he found me waiting for him. While I lit into him, the rest of his crew quietly evaporated. At the end of my tirade, I told him if he ever ignored my instructions again, I would have him disqualified. If the guys wondered how much they could get away with, it appears they had just found out. I never had another case of my instructions not being followed. So much for the theory, “the guys will never work for me.”
On the contrary, being a woman was sometimes an advantage. Having worked as a tower clerk, I was well aware of the antics of a switchman named Jim. He would frequently come to work on the graveyard shift and halfway through the shift declare he was too sick to continue and needed to go home. It would be too late to call a replacement, so the rest of the crew would be released as well, resulting in the loss of four hours of switching productivity. On one particularly busy night, while I was working yardmaster at the main tower, it was barely two hours into the shift when Jim called me on the intercom to tell me he had a headache. I knew what was coming next, the “I need to go home.” Before he could say any more, I told him I had some aspirin and would send it down. I stuck a couple in an envelope, put it on the hook, and dropped it down the tube to the switchmen’s shanty, the method used to send down switch lists. Less than two hours later, I got another call from Jim. “Sue, my head still hurts,” he whined. In a tone I normally reserved for my toddler, I said, “Ah, Jimmy, do you want Susie to come down and kiss it and make it all better?” I didn’t wait for a reply, but in the seconds before I switched off the intercom, I heard a roar of laughter from the rest of the crew, followed by a sympathetic “Ah, Jimmy!” from his foreman. Needless to say, Jim finished his shift and never tried this scam on me again. The next time I saw Al, he said he heard I was able to get Jim to complete a shift when he didn’t want to. He wanted to know my secret. After I described the incident, he frowned and shook his head: “Somehow, I just don’t see how that would work for the rest of us.”
After I had been working as a yardmaster for a few weeks, Mr. Huff made it a point to ask me how things were going, and if I was having any problems. I told him everything was going fine, but I did have one problem. I explained that there was only one bathroom at the hump and it didn’t have a lock. So, to avoid being walked in on, I’d wait until a carman or switchman stopped by and would ask them to guard the door while I was using the bathroom. They were all very accommodating, but it was a little embarrassing, so it would be nice if there was a lock. I burst out laughing the next time I worked at the hump, when I saw the huge cast iron sliding bolt they installed. I could just imagine the glee of the guys who installed it. “She wants a lock. We’ll give her a lock!” It was during that same shift I discovered the printer room had been de-nuded and the walls patched and painted. Thankfully, the guys took all the changes in stride and never complained; at least I didn’t hear about any.
Amid these light-hearted moments, there were emotionally difficult ones. One night, shortly after I arrived on duty for the graveyard shift at the lower yard, I became aware of an unusual amount of excited chatter on the radio indicating there was some kind of incident at the main yard requiring emergency vehicles. Later that shift, while I was alone in the lower yard office, Chuck arrived and asked if it was okay if he just sat with me for a little while. He was looking for a quiet place to compose himself. It was obvious he was very upset. I told him, “Sure,” and pointed to the guest chair. After a long period of silence, he finally explained about the accident at the main yard. A young carman was leaning in between two cars to attach the air hoses when a switch crew mistakenly tied into that same track of cars, causing a sudden movement which resulted in the carman losing a leg just below the knee. Chuck was one of the first people on the scene, and as the highest ranking official on duty coordinated the emergency response, and then he drove to the carman’s house to notify the young man’s wife. “She was sitting there holding their newborn baby,” he said in a shaky voice. “It was awful.” I couldn’t think of anything to say, so we just sat there fighting back tears until the lower yard clerk returned. At that point, Chuck looked at me and with a great deal of sincerity, said “Thanks,” and left.
Most of the time, I didn’t feel overly concerned for my own safety while working at the railyard. I did find it a scary environment, and I compensated by being overly careful. However, I was terrified by an incident at the lower yard when Charlie, a drunken transient, swung his cane at me while yelling profanities about women in general. Fortunately, I was able to duck in time and run to the safety of the lower yard office. After that I gave Charlie a wide berth. Prior to this incident the switchmen had assured me Charlie was harmless. “He’s not talking to himself; he’s just talking to his imaginary dog.” Obviously, they weren’t aware of his hostility toward females.
I also got stressed out about a couple of mistakes I made. One day while working the day shift at the lower yard, a Union Pacific trainmaster called and asked me if we had any cars for them, and if so, when would they be getting them. I told them it would be less than an hour. The cars had been switched out, and I was just waiting for a switch engine to return from another task. Then I would have that crew push the cars over to the designated exchange track. He offered to come and get them, but I said no. Then he gave me a line about how they do this sort of thing all the time. It’s no big deal. So, I finally relented. Turns out it was a big deal. My returning switch crew informed me they could submit a timeslip for extra pay because I had allowed a UP crew do their work, and that the UP trainmaster was playing me so he could give his crew an early quit. Sheepishly, I called Mr. Huff and told him what I had done, and that it would never happen again. He thanked me for letting him know. I never heard if my crew actually submitted the timeslips.
Another time, I was working the yardmaster position at the hump during the day shift on a perfectly gorgeous day, when I got a call from Al, who was working at the main tower. He was chuckling, “Sue, get in your car and drive down here. You have got to see what you did.” I got in my car and drove to the other end of the bowl tracks where Al was standing with a bunch of other men who were staring at “my mistake.” It seems there was a car in Bowl Track 22 that had been fouling the lead just a bit, not normally a source of concern. However, I had instructed the hump crew to dump 4 loaded ore jennies onto Bowl Tracks 21 and 23, not realizing the retarders would be unable to slow them sufficiently. They banged into the cars already there, forcing them out onto the lead. (Who knew those little ore jennies packed such a wallop?) So, there we were, staring at three tracks of cars that were all trying to head down the lead at the same time, with the top of the car on the left track leaning way to the left and the top of the car on the right track leaning way to the right. After much discussion and a determination that none of the cars involved had derailed, a decision was made on which track to go after first, and Al, using a hand radio, told the hump engine to go down onto that bowl track and pull “gently” on the cars until he told them to stop. Then he had them pull on the cars on the track on the opposite side of the railcar sandwich, and then last, go down and pull on the center track. Once the cars were all separated and off the lead, the car repair guys and the track inspectors went in to assess the damage. Unbelievably, there was no track or switch damage, and there was only minor damage to the cars. Two hand holds had been bent in, but the repair guys were able to fix them on the spot, so they didn’t need to go the repair shop. So, the final assessment of the incident was: no injuries (thank goodness), minimal damage, two hours of lost productivity, and one thoroughly embarrassed novice yardmaster.
As the summer was winding down and two of the absent yardmasters had returned to work, I was the last yardmaster trainee standing (the two trainees from the switchmen ranks had been disqualified over the course of the summer). But I was a wreck. Every night after I got home from work, I’d get a horrific migraine. My doctor said it was not uncommon for a migraine to hold off until after the stressful event causing it was over. He gave me some potent medication to take once the flashing vision started, and the meds would mitigate the headache somewhat. That and lying in a dark room with a cool washcloth on my eyes for a couple hours would help me get a few hours of sleep, so I would be prepared for my shift the next day. When I did sleep, I was plagued with nightmares and talked in my sleep. One night, I was shouting instructions to a crew, and woke my husband. He found it entertaining, and confirmed the instructions. Then he added, “Oh, no! 62 is on the ground!” I bolted up in bed and screamed, “What?” He felt bad about upsetting me, and put his arms around me. “It’s okay,” he said softly, and added, “I love you.” Still half asleep, I answered in a confused, groggy haze, “I love you, too, but what does that have to do with work?”
Ultimately, I decided it wasn’t worth it, despite the paycheck that was 35% larger than what I made as a clerk. I went to Mr. Huff and told him I was going to quit. But, since he was still trying to accommodate vacations for the rest of the yardmasters, I volunteered to stay on until everything got back to normal. He was sympathetic. He assured me this summer was an aberration, and that it usually wasn’t that difficult to be a yardmaster. He asked, “Doesn’t your husband start back to school in a couple of weeks?” I was surprised about his knowing so much about my personal situation, but responded, “Yes, after Labor Day.” “Well,” he suggested, “Why don’t you take the week off before Labor Day and the two of you get away and relax. You’ve earned it.” When I expressed concern about him having enough people to cover all the shifts, he just told me not to worry about that. When Jay tried to block my time off by insisting he needed me to cover some clerical shifts, Mr. Huff stepped in and told him I was not available, and he would just have to deal with it. To me he said, “Well, that was ridiculous. He’s been managing just fine without you all summer while you’ve been working as a yardmaster.” I found out later, no clerical overtime was paid during my week off, but there were 3 days of overtime paid for covering the yardmaster shifts I would have been assigned to.
While on vacation, I thought a lot about what to do, and ultimately decided I wanted to continue being a yardmaster. It did seem kind of ridiculous to quit after all I had endured to make it this far. So, I met with Mr. Huff the following week and I told him, “I know I got my 30 days in during all the chaos this summer, and that I’m now protected from being disqualified, but if you don’t think I’m doing a good enough job, just tell me, and I’ll quit. Otherwise, I liked to stay on.” He told me he had already discussed how well I was doing with the assistant superintendent and the trainmasters, and they all agreed they’d like me to stay on as a yardmaster.
And Mr. Huff was right. Things did calm down that fall. I even got an opportunity to work a day shift at the main tower. That was very enjoyable. I had the most senior and experienced foremen working for me, and I could actually see everything going on in the yard for the entire shift. Who knew daylight could be such an advantage? At the end of the shift, one of the switch foremen called me on the intercom. “Sue, you did a really good job today, but can I make a suggestion?” “Sure,” I responded. He went on to explain how I could save some crew time by pulling multiple cabooses from the waycar track (where they were being cleaned), and then positioning a couple of them on this one lead so they would be more readily available for the next switch crews. I had been unaware of how many switches needed to be aligned to get in and out of the waycar track. I let him know that I really appreciated the feedback.
Later that fall, the Gooch Mill foreman, who a few months before had tried to trick me to get me disqualified, arrived at work with a magazine in hand. “Sue, did you see this article?” he asked, as he pounded it on my desk. “No,” I answered confidently, since at that point in my career, I had not read a railroad magazine. “What’s your yardmaster seniority date?” he demanded. I responded, “I don’t know. Sometime in mid-August. Why?” His livid response was, “There’s an article in here about a gal at the UP. They’re claiming she’s the first woman yardmaster in the country. Your seniority date is before hers. Someone needs to say something.” I just laughed and told him it was okay. It really didn’t matter. But to myself, I thought how flattering it was to know that I had been so accepted by the switchmen that they felt the need to “protect my honor,” so to speak, and how wonderful it was to know that women at other railroads were also breaking through the cast iron ceiling within the yardmaster union ranks.
Sue Rathe at home on Nov. 2, 2021. Dr. Rathe works part-time for the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota using bioinformatic techniques to study cellular changes associated with various types of cancer. To date, Dr. Rathe has contributed to 17 articles published in various scientific journals.
For more recollections from Dr. Rathe, see Fond Memories of Hunter Harrison.
The post Experiences of a Woman Yardmaster, 1975 appeared first on Railway Age.
This article first appeared on www.railwayage.com
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