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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.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    David Crow

    Chris Enss writes great books about women who were left out of history, not because they weren't there, but because the authors chose to ignore them. We learn in the wonderful book, Iron Women, that it was a woman who invented the modern refrigerator box, an woman who used her engineering skill to vastly improve the interior of rail cars, a woman who improved the bearings on a rail wheel to respond to axles, a woman who designed the elegant Fred Harvey hotels staples of the old west, a woman who Chris Enss writes great books about women who were left out of history, not because they weren't there, but because the authors chose to ignore them. We learn in the wonderful book, Iron Women, that it was a woman who invented the modern refrigerator box, an woman who used her engineering skill to vastly improve the interior of rail cars, a woman who improved the bearings on a rail wheel to respond to axles, a woman who designed the elegant Fred Harvey hotels staples of the old west, a woman who was a hard-nosed train robber and prostitute and so many other things women did that have been left out until now. Bravo, Chris, another home run. Love it.

  2. 4 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.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Brenda

    This book covers a nice little segment of history that we don't hear much about, which is how women drove progress to the western US through their contributions to the railroads and the hospitality industry that supported railroad travel. The book wasn't exactly what I expected because I thought it would be more about women who were somehow involved in building the transcontinental railroad, whereas this was all about activities after that milestone event. Some of the contributions discussed in t This book covers a nice little segment of history that we don't hear much about, which is how women drove progress to the western US through their contributions to the railroads and the hospitality industry that supported railroad travel. The book wasn't exactly what I expected because I thought it would be more about women who were somehow involved in building the transcontinental railroad, whereas this was all about activities after that milestone event. Some of the contributions discussed in this book were truly remarkable for their time, such as the improved design of refrigerated boxcars, better windows for passenger cars etc. But some of the women discussed in this book were socialites, actresses, waitresses or journalists that were really just out on a fabulous journey. I didn't think they really qualified as "Iron" women, but they were at least tangentially associated with railroads at some point. The two chapters that covered the Fred Harvey houses were a little redundant - it was pretty interesting reading about the architect that built those houses, but when the next chapter covered the Harvey girls, and even used some of the exact same quotes (e.g. Will Bill), it felt like the author just crammed in that chapter with a lot less attention to her story lines. Many thanks to the author and to NetGalley for the free advance reading copy. The opinions expressed here are purely my own. #Netgalley #IronWomen

  4. 5 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.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jan

    The documentation and presentation are very similar to Publish or Perish theses. The women included worked as telegraphers, the owner of narrow gauge railroad, a travel writer, train robber, one who developed the modern refrigerator car, a journalist, civil engineers, an architect, lawyers, and a railroad muralist. The intense research is meticulously documented and attests to its validity. The title is a little off center, but how else might one title a book on the importance of women in railro The documentation and presentation are very similar to Publish or Perish theses. The women included worked as telegraphers, the owner of narrow gauge railroad, a travel writer, train robber, one who developed the modern refrigerator car, a journalist, civil engineers, an architect, lawyers, and a railroad muralist. The intense research is meticulously documented and attests to its validity. The title is a little off center, but how else might one title a book on the importance of women in railroad history? I enjoyed the read (but then, I really like Charles River Editors). I requested and received a free temporary ebook from Rowman & Littlefield/TwoDot via NetGalley. Thank you.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Erica Nesbitt

    I read this book as an advance copy and was not compensated for my review. This book had an interesting topic and a lot of potential. The pictures were good additions but unfortunately, the book is a difficult read. The content consists of mostly verbatim quotes and little to no analysis, independent thought, or conclusions. Not sure I've ever read a book before where every single paragraph had at least one footnote. I would not recommend this book to others. I read this book as an advance copy and was not compensated for my review. This book had an interesting topic and a lot of potential. The pictures were good additions but unfortunately, the book is a difficult read. The content consists of mostly verbatim quotes and little to no analysis, independent thought, or conclusions. Not sure I've ever read a book before where every single paragraph had at least one footnote. I would not recommend this book to others.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Harriet Smith

    I loved reading this short but informative book about women's roles in the early railroad, from the refrigeration car to the painted murals inside the cars and leadership in a male-dominated industry. I definitely learned a lot about the era and the accomplishments of these strong women. I loved reading this short but informative book about women's roles in the early railroad, from the refrigeration car to the painted murals inside the cars and leadership in a male-dominated industry. I definitely learned a lot about the era and the accomplishments of these strong women.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Marilynn Dillon

    So interesting to discover how creative and intelligent women were responsible for the success of the railroads. Without their beauty and talent I doubt that the railroad system would be as desirable as it was.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mary Nee

    This book had an interesting topic and the pictures were good. I especially liked the chapters about the Harvey Girls.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Deepshikha

  11. 5 out of 5

    Gary

  12. 5 out of 5

    Dr Nabakishor

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sultangazi Elektrikçi

  14. 5 out of 5

    OTIS

  15. 4 out of 5

    Genereams

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Bradshaw

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen Bianchi

  18. 5 out of 5

    Leah

  19. 5 out of 5

    Karen

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

  21. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

  22. 5 out of 5

    JR

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jen (Pop! Goes The Reader)

  24. 5 out of 5

    Diana

  25. 4 out of 5

    Ron Frampton

  26. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

  27. 5 out of 5

    Samia Dias

  28. 5 out of 5

    rêveur d'art

  29. 4 out of 5

    Gracie Liberty

  30. 5 out of 5

    Megan

  31. 5 out of 5

    Barbs

  32. 5 out of 5

    Nicole DiPiazza

  33. 4 out of 5

    Blair Stackhouse

  34. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  35. 4 out of 5

    Navi

  36. 4 out of 5

    Lissa

  37. 4 out of 5

    Noah

  38. 5 out of 5

    Gene

  39. 5 out of 5

    Caitlin

  40. 4 out of 5

    NicolR

  41. 5 out of 5

    Kenny Gonzales Ang

  42. 4 out of 5

    MarieM

  43. 5 out of 5

    Katie

  44. 5 out of 5

    Krystal

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