- Historic Sites
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
A SPECIAL DESIGNER HAD BEEN hired to make an acceptable uniform for the women. No airline-stewardess chic, however. The object was to disguise the female anatomy and deflatter what could not be concealed. The jacket was long enough to cover the hips and shaped to flatten the breasts. A man’s shirt with a stiffly starched male collar and a black necktie were worn under it, while a man’s hat—the trainman’s own peaked cap with the inscription “Trainman” in gold braid across the peak—sat deep on the forehead, covered the ears, and made a mess of any woman’s hair. Short hair stuck out like Raggedy Ann fringes; long hair looked grotesque and in any case was not permitted. Some girls stuffed all their hair under the cap so that they did, in fact, look like men in skirts, for although the uniform was meant to make us as unprovocative as possible, we had to wear skirts because they were ladylike. They blew up in the draft as we walked between cars or stood in the spring breeze on the platform. Our legs froze in winter, and in the rain and snow all the pleating came undone. Sensible, comfortable shoes looked terrible with those skirts, but high heels were impractical—that is, for anyone but Smokey. Even so, after an initial plea for pants had been refused, we put up with the skirts; by now many of the Uncle Toms among us were devoted to them. They were ladies, as we were so often reminded, and they didn’t want to be indistinguishable from the men.
After a moment of stupefaction a torrent of argument broke loose, and Peggy, with her square-jawed, dimpled smile, gaveled for order.
It was a great ploy. Women who had been sore at the men were now sore at one another. There was a split between those who regarded themselves as “ladies” and those who regarded themselves as “women.” Those who wanted to be ladies and thought that throwing switches was unladylike did want to keep the skirts, but there were also many among them who wanted equal work and equal rights who thought their hips or thighs were too heavy and did not want to wear pants; they fought with the girls who had good legs and did want pants, even though they, too, were for seniority rights. It was a mess.
The trainmaster, with his pale eyes, watched with satisfaction. The issue was not then resolved, and for a long time it divided our attention and consumed energy and heat that had been directed at other matters.
“Smokey giggled, stretched herself out on the bed. ‘We want some of that there senior-ority thing, Mr. Cahill, and brother, we need it!’”
One summer evening, returning to the locker room after a murderously busy weekend job, I saw Smokey standing outside talking to two big fellows with cigars and powdered jowls. She wore her fresh shirt and fresh makeup. Her cap sat precariously, as usual, atop her upswept hairdo. She was chuckling and batting her eyes, as was her habit with men. She grabbed my elbow as I made for the locker-room door.
“I want you to meet some friends ” she said, so meaningfully that both men laughed. I myself was feeling slow, if not altogether numb, after twenty-two hours of rail time.
“These two gentlemen,” Smokey went on, “are from the Grand Lodge of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen; they are vice presidents . The president sent them to find out what’s going on down here, and they want to talk to us .”
The two men—Joe Cahill and Boyce Eidson—had rooms in the hotel across from the station. We went to Cahill’s room, where Smokey promptly made herself comfortable on one of the twin beds. The men were visibly affected by this. Cahill quietly opened the hotelroom door and wedged a doorstop under it, which only created even more of a feeling of embarrassment. I myself sat primly on a straight-backed chair, but only because if I’d relaxed at all, I’d have collapsed. Cahill called room service and ordered a couple of bottles of whiskey and soda, catching Eidson’s eye as he did so.
“That what you girls drink?” he barked. He was a barker and a grumbler, a chunky, florid, silver-haired gent with ruddy face and stubby fingers. His face looked scrubbed, polished, massaged, and powdered, and there was an expression in it—impetuous and boyish—that I found attractive. His suit was of the silkiest worsted, beautifully tailored and of a shade that matched his tousled silver hair. Boyce Eidson—much less colorful—called him Little Snake. Since there was nothing snaky in his appearance, I assumed it referred to his character, although he looked to me entirely forthright. He sounded rough and tough; he hustled and made other displays of vigor, but his eyes were intelligent, grave, and even soft behind steel-rimmed spectacles. Much later I discovered that the trainmen’s union people referred to the switchmen’s union people as snakes, and once in the long ago Cahill had been one of them.
“Sweet Tom Collins for me,” said Smokey. “Two cherries please.” She chuckled at him. He glared toward me.
“Wine,” I said. “Red, please.”
“ Wine ?” He seemed paralyzed at the idea.
“Give the orders, Little Snake,” said Eidson, puffing at his cigar.