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Iron Women: The Ladies Who Helped Build the Railroad

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When the last spike was hammered into the steel track of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah, Western Union lines sounded the glorious news of the railroad's completion from New York to San Francisco. For more than five years an estimated four thousand men mostly Irish working west from Omaha and Chinese working east from Sacramento, mo When the last spike was hammered into the steel track of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah, Western Union lines sounded the glorious news of the railroad's completion from New York to San Francisco. For more than five years an estimated four thousand men mostly Irish working west from Omaha and Chinese working east from Sacramento, moved like a vast assembly line toward the end of the track. Editorials in newspapers and magazines praised the accomplishment and some boasted that the work that "was begun, carried on, and completed solely by men." The August edition of Godey's Lady's Book even reported "No woman had laid a rail and no woman had made a survey." Although the physical task of building the railroad had been achieved by men, women made significant and lasting contributions to the historic operation. However, the female connection with railroading dates as far back as 1838 when women were hired as registered nurses/stewardesses in passenger cars. Those ladies attended to the medical needs of travelers and also acted as hostesses of sorts helping passengers have a comfortable journey. Beyond nursing and service roles, however, women played a larger part in the actual creation of the rail lines than they have been given credit for. Miss E. F. Sawyer became the first female telegraph operator when she was hired by the Burlington Railroad in Montgomery, Illinois, in 1872. Eliza Murfey focused on the mechanics of the railroad, creating devices for improving the way bearings on a rail wheel attached to train cars responded to the axles. Murfey held sixteen patents for her 1870 invention. In 1879, another woman inventor named Mary Elizabeth Walton developed a system that deflected emissions from the smoke stacks on railroad locomotives. She was awarded two patents for her pollution reducing device. Their stories and many more are included in this illustrated volume celebrating women and the railroad.


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When the last spike was hammered into the steel track of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah, Western Union lines sounded the glorious news of the railroad's completion from New York to San Francisco. For more than five years an estimated four thousand men mostly Irish working west from Omaha and Chinese working east from Sacramento, mo When the last spike was hammered into the steel track of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah, Western Union lines sounded the glorious news of the railroad's completion from New York to San Francisco. For more than five years an estimated four thousand men mostly Irish working west from Omaha and Chinese working east from Sacramento, moved like a vast assembly line toward the end of the track. Editorials in newspapers and magazines praised the accomplishment and some boasted that the work that "was begun, carried on, and completed solely by men." The August edition of Godey's Lady's Book even reported "No woman had laid a rail and no woman had made a survey." Although the physical task of building the railroad had been achieved by men, women made significant and lasting contributions to the historic operation. However, the female connection with railroading dates as far back as 1838 when women were hired as registered nurses/stewardesses in passenger cars. Those ladies attended to the medical needs of travelers and also acted as hostesses of sorts helping passengers have a comfortable journey. Beyond nursing and service roles, however, women played a larger part in the actual creation of the rail lines than they have been given credit for. Miss E. F. Sawyer became the first female telegraph operator when she was hired by the Burlington Railroad in Montgomery, Illinois, in 1872. Eliza Murfey focused on the mechanics of the railroad, creating devices for improving the way bearings on a rail wheel attached to train cars responded to the axles. Murfey held sixteen patents for her 1870 invention. In 1879, another woman inventor named Mary Elizabeth Walton developed a system that deflected emissions from the smoke stacks on railroad locomotives. She was awarded two patents for her pollution reducing device. Their stories and many more are included in this illustrated volume celebrating women and the railroad.

32 review for Iron Women: The Ladies Who Helped Build the Railroad

  1. 5 out of 5

    Randee Green

    In IRON WOMEN, Chris Enss focuses on women’s contributions to the railroads during the 1800s and early 1900s. Men might have physically built the railroads, but women made lasting contributions and helped inspire travel. Enss covers female telegraphers, the Harvey Girls, and women who created the refrigerated boxcars, designed more comfortable passenger cars, promoted westward travel through artwork or written pieces, and an architect who built some of the Harvey Houses and the tourist sites at In IRON WOMEN, Chris Enss focuses on women’s contributions to the railroads during the 1800s and early 1900s. Men might have physically built the railroads, but women made lasting contributions and helped inspire travel. Enss covers female telegraphers, the Harvey Girls, and women who created the refrigerated boxcars, designed more comfortable passenger cars, promoted westward travel through artwork or written pieces, and an architect who built some of the Harvey Houses and the tourist sites at the Grand Canyon. Some of the women Enss focused on were a bit out in left field—including famous train robber Laura Bullion, a prostitute who was murdered and later had a train car named after her, and Lily Langtry who had a specially made train car for her travels throughout the United States. While an interesting read, I didn’t feel as if the book really had much focus on the railroad. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Janilyn Kocher

    Iron Women examines women who contributed to the rise of the railroads. The chapters cover inventors, writers, bosses, and the infamous Harvey Girls. Women played an integral part in making the railroads a significant factor in US history. The chapter I find the most interesting was the one on the HArvey Girls. I had a vague idea who they were, but I had no idea it was a chain of restaurants and hotels along the southwest that gave jobs to thousands of women from the 1890s-1930s. This book adds Iron Women examines women who contributed to the rise of the railroads. The chapters cover inventors, writers, bosses, and the infamous Harvey Girls. Women played an integral part in making the railroads a significant factor in US history. The chapter I find the most interesting was the one on the HArvey Girls. I had a vague idea who they were, but I had no idea it was a chain of restaurants and hotels along the southwest that gave jobs to thousands of women from the 1890s-1930s. This book adds to women’s history and Industrial history genres. Thanks to Edelweiss and Two Dot Books for the advance copy.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Genereams

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Bradshaw

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen Bianchi

  6. 5 out of 5

    Leah

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    Karen

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    Jennifer

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    Hannah

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    JR

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jen (Pop! Goes The Reader)

  12. 5 out of 5

    Diana

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    Ron Frampton

  14. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

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    Samia Dias

  16. 5 out of 5

    rêveur d'art

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    Rebecca

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    Gracie Liberty

  19. 4 out of 5

    Megan

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    Barbs

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    Nicole DiPiazza

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    Blair Stackhouse

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    Elizabeth

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    Noah

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    Gene

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    Caitlin

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    NicolR

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kenny Gonzales Ang

  31. 4 out of 5

    MarieM

  32. 5 out of 5

    Katie

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