The Lady Brakemen
Consigned to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Garbage Run,” they fought their own war on the home front, and they helped shape a victory as surely as their brothers and husbands did overseas
July/August 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 4
All the new lady brakemen on the Pennsylvania Railroad were put to work on what was officially known as the Jersey Coast Extra List. The crew dispatchers referred to it as the Women’s List, and the male brakemen, who had been consigned to it before the women were hired, called it the Garbage Run. It was also known as the meat—as opposed to the gravy, the cushy sit-down jobs on the main line Washington Express, which paid three times as much for about one-tenth the work. There were thirty-two stops on the Jersey Coast run, and it took three hours to make it, often in old cattle cars converted for commuter use. But in the beginning the women, not knowing better, loved it.
It was 1944, we were all fired up with wartime patriotism, and the notion of doing “a man’s job” was in those days thrilling. Besides, the want ad that appeared in The New York Times promised $7.11 a day for unskilled, pleasant railroad work that required no prior experience. That was far more than typing or clerking paid or any of the other jobs for “girls.” Forty young women, most in their early twenties, were hired. We were chosen, so far as I could tell, for eagerness, proper subservience, clean fingernails, neat hair, and sufficient evidence of ability to memorize and obey railroad rules. I myself had a gut sense that it would not do to confess that I was motivated by a romantic conception of railroads acquired from movies and novels. A literature major at Columbia University, I got most of my notions from books and very little from living. I said instead that I had a brother overseas and wanted to do my share. That was true; most of us new hires had relatives in the war, and that fact for some reason seemed to guarantee that we could be relied on to leave the railroad when the war was over. So I quit my job—my first since graduating—as a receptionist at 20th Century-Fox, which by comparison was neither wild nor daring and certainly didn’t pay as well.
It was 1944, and we were all fired up with wartime patriotism, and the notion of doing “a man’s job” was in those days thrilling.
It took us a remarkably long time to learn that while we were indeed earning $7.11 a day for hopping on and off station platforms sixty-four times in three hours going down the coast and sixty-four times again coming back, some men were collecting $21 a day for just sitting down four hours each way to and from Washington in plush, clean cars pulled by diesel engines. For one thing, information about the way things worked on the railroad was hard to come by. It wasn’t merely that the men were so curiously hostile and reticent but that the running of the road was such a complex affair that even old-timers didn’t always comprehend why things happened the way they did and couldn’t explain a lot of it even if they were willing. Many of the men assumed, as we did, that things happened that way because it was the only way they could. There were hundreds of rules, written down in thick books, governing every aspect of the operations, and they had to be memorized unquestioningly. The very thing that was most seductive about the road—the movement—was what had to be absolutely controlled. No move could be plotted that might violate any one of those seemingly endless and often conflicting regulations—federal, state, interstate, safety, labor, intra-union, insurance, and rules of other railroads sharing the same tracks: a staggeringly dense lot of logistics. And then the condition of the road, the equipment, the switching problems, the location of an extra car to be brought from a distant yard to make up a full train, and, of course, economy all had to be considered in making up and scheduling every train that went out. It’s not surprising that passengers were often regarded by railroaders as a superfluous nuisance. Ordering a crew was possibly the simplest part of that whole complicated system, but there were so many considerations governing hours, working conditions, and pay that what might seem the most obvious way might turn out to be the most expensive. The crews were entitled to different wage rates depending upon which terminal they originated at, how many miles they worked, how many hours they laid over, their rail time, and more.
So it was no wonder that it took us a little while to begin questioning the way things were ordered for us. Yet even after we understood that it was because we were women that we had been assigned the run where you worked the hardest and made the least money, we still loved being on the railroad. Nevertheless, the questions began to fester.
“Well, you know, you girls don’t do the work the fellows do—”
“They sit all the way to Washington! Once they’ve got the tickets out of Newark, there’s nothing for them to do!”
“Well, that’s true enough on those Washington expresses, but they’re ready to do things you girls just can’t do.”
“Well, you don’t move baggage, do you?”
“Or carry the markers down to the trains?”
“Or throw switches?”
“Well, you see, you aren’t real brakemen at all. You’re just ticket takers.”
“We hired on as brakemen. The trainmaster says we’re brakemen.”