Women in Rail—Steam, That Is!

Written by Dan Cupper, Deputy Editor-Railroad History, Railway & Locomotive Historical Society for railwayage.com

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Fireman Shelley Hall, left, and engineer Andrea Biesecker prepare to run around their Strasburg Rail Road passenger train at Leaman Place Junction (Paradise, Pa.), the short line’s connection with Amtrak‘s Philadelphia-Harrisburg, Pa., electrified main line. March 6, 2021. All photos by Dan Cupper.

The Strasburg Rail Road, America’s oldest short line railroad, honored International Women’s Day (March 8) and Women’s History Month by assigning its first-ever all-female steam locomotive crew.

Andrea Biesecker worked as engineer and Shelley Hall as fireman for all five round-trips on the 189-year-old Strasburg Rail Road, the 4.5-mile-long tourist and freight carrier in southeastern Pennsylvania. The runs took place on a cold and blustery Saturday, March 6, with No. 475, the same Baldwin-built 1906 former Norfolk & Western Railway 4-8-0-type that Biesecker qualified on in 2014.

Posing in the gangway of their locomotive are fireman Shelley Hall, left, and engineer Andrea Biesecker. The locomotive is Strasburg Rail Road No. 475, a 1906 Baldwin 4-8-0 type, standing next to the enginehouse at the company’s headquarters in East Strasburg, Pa. March 6, 2021.

Both women came to engine service through the railroad’s shop. Biesecker graduated from Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pa., in 2009 and was hired as a machinist. She qualified as a fireman in 2012, and as an engineer in 2014. She said she is “honored to be the first female machinist, first female engineer, and now to be part of the first all-female crew.”

Hall was the railroad’s first female welder. She started in 2015 and qualified as a locomotive fireman in 2019. She said she “worked hard to become a welder and a fireman for the railroad. Working in a male-dominated field is not easy, and sometimes you have to work harder because it’s not a given that you know what to do because you’re a woman.”

The train passes the Red Caboose Motel on its way back to East Strasburg, Pa. March 6, 2021.

Hall suggested an all-women engine crew. “I just wanted to show girls that just because it’s mostly guys that do this job, women can do it too. For as long as the Strasburg has been running trains, there hasn’t been an all-female engine crew, so I figured it was about time.”

Both women are given high marks for their skills and work ethic by Dave Domitrovitch, formerly boiler shop supervisor at the Strasburg and now Chief Mechanical Officer at the newly revived narrow-gauge East Broad Top Railroad in south-central Pennsylvania.

The first train of the day passes Carpenters Crossing, a short distance west of Paradise, Pa., March 6, 2021.

Among the 24 qualified engineers and 32 firemen at the Strasburg, Biesecker and Hall are the only women qualified as engine service employees. The company has 59 full-time and 101 part-time people. Of these, nine full-timers and 26 part-timers are women.

International Women’s Day is, according to its website, a global event to honor “the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women” and to mark “a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.”

Founded in 1832, the Strasburg Rail Road is one of the earliest and best-known short lines railroads in America, dating to 1959 for tourist service. It handles a growing freight business, usually with a diesel locomotive, but sometimes steam stands in as a substitute, to the delight of its many admirers.

A mid-afternoon run heads for the station at East Strasburg, Pa. March 6, 2021.
Updated: March 12, 2021 — 2:08 PM

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