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Western Railroad Discussion > First female Union Pacific Railroad engineer prepares f


Date: 04/10/05 12:14
First female Union Pacific Railroad engineer prepares f
Author: vegasrails

Taken from the Las Vegas Sun
Her hand on the throttle of a 4,000-horsepower, 200-ton diesel locomotive, Union Pacific Railroad engineer Bonnie Leake had reason to be concerned while she was driving the train back from Blue Diamond a few years ago.

"I still had my air brakes, but it was a steep downgrade" and the equipment that retards the motors on the axles to slow down the train wasn't working. "As we started down the mountain, the dynamics began working again. At the end of that 10-mile grade, they stopped working again.

"I've always considered myself a very lucky person -- lucky the brake dynamics worked when they did; lucky to have had this job; lucky to have never hit anyone; lucky to have been in the right place at the right time."

Leake, the first woman engineer for North America's largest railroad company, is making her final haul this weekend after nearly 39 years with Union Pacific -- 31 of them as an engine service crew member.

Leake, a 1963 Las Vegas High graduate who will turn 60 on April 24, says her career has been both gratifying and financially rewarding, as engineer salaries are based more on the miles traveled than the hours worked.

"The money always was my motivating factor," said Leake, a single mother who after high school struggled to make a living in low-paying office jobs at the Dunes and Hacienda hotels.

"I wanted to earn a man's wage in a man's world. It turns out that had I stayed with the hotels, I would have been out of work with few options because they blew up those places."

Veteran train engineers can, depending on how often they want to work, earn between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, Leake said.

But Leake paid a price for her pioneering spirit. Initially shunned by brakemen and conductors in her crews, she regularly ate alone in restaurants during the 1970s and early '80s while male co-workers sat in a booth several feet away.

And in those early days on the job, some men tried to rattle Leake into returning to so-called women's work.

"One time a crew member tried to intimidate me by saying, 'You have the responsibility for millions of dollars of railroad equipment and four lives,' to which I calmly replied, 'Awesome, isn't it?' " Leake said. "He sat down."

Today, Leake has the respect of many of her co-workers that include four women engineers in Las Vegas and the deep admiration of at least one male engineer.

"It is often said around the Union Pacific office that the day Bonnie retires they will have to hire two men to replace her," said Union Pacific engineer Ira Happe, who met Leake when he was a conductor in the early 1980s and has been her boyfriend since 1986.

"Over the years she took every all-night drag that no other engineer wanted, including Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and other holidays. She has been the company's go-to engineer."

Leake, who has never married, says she is contemplating that possibility as part of her retirement plans, even though it would mean her new name would be Bonnie Gay Happe (pronounced "happy").

Leake, who came to Las Vegas with her family when she was 10, did not grow up with a fascination for trains or a longing for the romanticism of the railroad.

She took her first railroad job as a clerk on Labor Day 1966 simply because it paid more than her then-job of telephone operator at the Hacienda.

But soon the railroad clerk job became boring and her options seemed limited.

"I told then-road foreman Leo Love that in my next life I wanted to be a man because the pay was so much better for men," Leake said. "He told me that the times were changing and that the railroad was being pressured into hiring women in jobs that were traditionally men's positions.

"He encouraged me to become an engineer."

In 1974 Leake submitted an engineer application. A few months later, she was told to report for training to become a "fireman," the first step in becoming an engineer.

Over the years, Leake worked not only for Union Pacific hauling coal and other goods to California and Utah, but also for Amtrak carrying passengers.

The General Motors-built locomotive she controlled pulled as many as 100 cars that stretched behind her for a mile and a half. To haul coal loads of up to 12,000 tons, Leake was in control of three locomotive engines.

She took not only the 70 mph "hot shot" runs of priority goods but also 15 mph "drags" that required her to pull her slow-moving train off to the side tracks to let the hot shots scream by.

While Leake did many local runs all over the Las Vegas Valley, she did just two long haul routes -- the 171-mile trek to Yermo, Calif., and the 247-mile haul to Milford, Utah -- during her lengthy career.

"Frankly, almost anyone can learn to do this -- it's not rocket science," Leake said of being an engineer. "But to do it for so long, you have to enjoy it. I always found it neat to look back and see a mile-long train behind me.

"And you have to respect the worst parts of this job -- being away from home a lot and having just 1 1/2 hours to report to work. That's the nature of the beast. If you don't like blood, you aren't going to become a doctor."

John Bromley, spokesman for Union Pacific, said engineer schedules are like that because different numbers of trains run each day. He said that while engineers can check a computerized schedule to get an idea of when they might next work, they get notified just 90 minutes before their next shift.

"In the days before cell phones and pagers, messengers sometimes had to be sent to engineers' homes to knock on their doors and wake them up to report to work," Bromley said.

In her earliest days as a railroad clerk, that was one of Leake's duties, she said, noting that when she became an engineer she had to get used to staying glued to her phone or checking in with dispatchers every hour or two to see if she were needed to make a run.

Leake said her job was much harder on her in the earlier days because in 1968 she gave birth to a daughter and had to struggle to maintain her hectic work schedule while caring for her then-school-aged child.

"I have to thank family, neighbors and other friends for their (child care) support," Leake said. "It was tough. I tried to get home by 9 p.m., but often I didn't make it home until after midnight, so my daughter had to spend the night with the babysitter."

In recent years, Leake has engineered about eight long trips a month. In prior years, she made as many as 30 trips a month, many of them 12-hour-long hauls.

Being a railroad engineer is not glamorous, whether you are a man or a woman, Leake said, noting she will not miss the absence of running water or having to use chemical toilets on the train.

"I will miss watching the sun rise over the mountains, deer and wild horses running along the route and the changing of the colors of the leaves in the fall," she said.

Leake said that while she adjusted to many of the demands and traditions of her job, she steadfastly refused to wear the traditional bib overalls of a train engineer because she did not think it was appropriate wear for a woman.

"I'm a cowgirl, so I loved having a job where I could wear jeans," she said.

She'll continue wearing denim in her retirement. She owns a 2 1/2-acre mini-ranch in southwest Clark County, where she has six dogs, seven potbellied pigs, five horses and cats and chickens.

She said she is looking forward to spending "more time with my animals.

"There have been many times that I have been away from them for several days."

Leake said retirement also will give her more time with her daughter, Bonnie Anderson, a draftsman with C.R. Wallace Engineering, and her 85-year-old mother, Eleanor Yarborough, a one-time truck driver.

Leake, who invested in real estate and today has several properties that provide rental income, said her retirement also will allow a young person to replace her and also make a decent living for his -- or her -- family.





Date: 04/10/05 12:36
Re: First female Union Pacific Railroad engineer prepar
Author: stash

Great human interest story. Does anyone know what happened to the first female hoghead hired by SP years ago? I think she was a story in the SP Bulletin and also in the newspapers/mags. I wonder if she stuck to it and retired?



Date: 04/10/05 12:46
Re: First female Union Pacific Railroad engineer prepar
Author: eminence_grise

Congratulations "Bon Bon"

Bonny is also a dedicated member
of the BLET (Brotherhood of
Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen,
Teamsters Rail Conference)
and twice hosted the BLE
"International Western Conference"
in Las Vegas NV.

Not only did she face up to her
male counterparts on the UP,
but also made her way in the very
male hierarchy of the Brotherhood
of Locomotive Engineers.

She will be missed on her regular
runs along the LA&SL.

Phil (recently retired from 33
years in train & engine service
on the other first
transcon with "Pacific" in its
name)



Date: 04/10/05 14:10
Re: First female Union Pacific Railroad engineer prepar
Author: PullmanPorter

That was Evelyn Newell. There was a picture of her in the newspaper at the controls of SP 3197 when it made its official first run in 1975. SP claimed she was the first female engineer.


stash Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Great human interest story. Does anyone know what
> happened to the first female hoghead hired by SP
> years ago? I think she was a story in the SP
> Bulletin and also in the newspapers/mags. I wonder
> if she stuck to it and retired?




Date: 04/10/05 18:22
SP's First Two Women Hogheads
Author: johnw

SP hired their first two women firemen (firepersons?) at the same time back in late 1975 or early 1976. Both were former clerks on the Western Division out of Oakland. Both were promoted to engineer in about six months and had stories written about them in Railfan magazine by Western Divsion hogger and author Dick Murdoch. Evelyn Newell was the first promoted and went out on a disability pension in the 1980's, after injuries substained after hitting a cut of standing cars on a switch engine as I recall. Jackie Bigelow was promoted right after Evelyn and worked as an engineer out of Oakland and an Assistant Trainmaster in Watsonville and San Francisco before taking a $50,000 buyout SP was offering engineers in the late 1980's. She married an Oakland switchman (now deceased) and moved to Oregon with him. Since then of course, many other women have followed in their footsteps. Quite a few decided the job was not for them and quit but many more are still working and doing well.



Date: 04/10/05 19:45
Re: SP's First Two Women Hogheads
Author: WAF

Their engine service dates started in 1973 and almost had sucessive seniority dates in engine service except for a guy that was hired at the same time and got ( drew?) a higher number.



Date: 04/10/05 20:25
Raton's first female hoghead
Author: grande473

Annette Foster Pruitt hired out on the Santa Fe in Raton, New Mexico in 1976 and had to overcome the hazing of various employees. Some of her biggest adversaries weren't the trainmen but the wives of the trainment. Raton was only 8,500 persons which meant people could go up and down Main Street wagging their tongues in a short time.
However she stuck with it. She married engineer Lloyd Pruitt. Both were on the Raton-Las Vegas district. I believe both are now retired.



Date: 04/10/05 21:09
Re: SP's First Two Women Hogheads
Author: johnw

You are absolutely correct WAF on Evelyn's and Jackie's seniority dates of 1973. I guess I was just having a "senior moment"! 1973 is the same year I went into engine service on the Coast so I should have remembered that year!



Date: 04/10/05 22:03
Re: SP's First Two Women Hogheads
Author: gman1

Let's not forget Christy Aldeis on the former Santa Fe, Christy had her picture taken by Shirley Burnham (wife of Richard Steinheimer) for a book on women in railroading. Christy married Bobby Aldeis who still is a conductor on the Belen - El Paso run. Christy now works on the crossing closure team, identifying candidate crossings for elimination lowering the potential locations where trains and motorists can run afoul of each other.



Date: 04/10/05 22:35
Re: SP's First Two Women Hogheads
Author: sploopconductor

When I hired out at Los Angeles in 1977, as a fireman, Jackie was the instructor. 3 weeks into it, they changed us to Brakemen / Switchmen. They were really short of trainmen, and could wait for more Firemen. They asked her if she still wanted to train us, or go someplace else to teach another Fireman's class. She stayed with us, and made it a fun time of learning. I will say, looking back, she was excellent as a teacher.

One of her lines I remember: "How many of you smoke?" I was the only non-smoker of the group. "Larry, you may as well start now, because I guarantee after a few months of the railroad 'lifestyle', you will be a smoker!" I told her right back: "Jackie, I don't think so. I plan on inhaling diesel fumes and smoke in this job ... I never have smoked, and never will!"

And, to this day ... "Never have, never will!"

To you, Jackie Bigelow, wherever you are, I wish you only the best in life wherever the rails may take you!

You lost the 'bet', but I hope you were able to quit that nasty habit.

As for me, I still enjoy diesel fumes!

Take Care, Stay Safe, Have Fun!

Larry



Date: 04/10/05 23:20
Re: First female hoghead
Author: peddler

Believe Christene Gonzales Aldeis of the Santa Fe
was the first female freight engineer. Here is a
link to a "BNSF Today" article.

http://www.bnsf.com/media/articles/2004/03/2004-03-09-b.html

peddler



Date: 04/11/05 11:44
Re: First female hoghead
Author: RD10747

Late 60's, as Nite Supervisory Agent at Barstow,
I met Bonnie several times as she 'hogheaded' the
Barstow turn from Yermo, usually around 3am, making
the Salt Lake to AT interchange and picking ATSF biz for West Yermo Marine Base...



Date: 04/11/05 12:50
Re: First female hoghead
Author: Amtkrd4man

Good for her and Congrat's on making it!!!!! I can't wait either



Date: 04/16/05 15:59
Re: First female Union Pacific Railroad engineer prepar
Author: groundhog

Evelyn and hubby Press Hart attended a retirement dinner last year at Franchesco in oakland last year. she looked great. Jackie hasn,t been mentioned since Art Hoffscinder died. both were a lot of fun to work with and party with both were excellent hogheads we also had emily Friend as a hogger who last i heard is a corrider chief she was great also. two other ladies who names escape me all worked SP oakland



Date: 12/01/09 15:59
Re: First female Union Pacific Railroad engineer prepar
Author: ashlandrailmuseum

Hi, we are trying to locate Evelyn Newell to have her speak at Ashland Historic Railroad Museum in Ashland, Oregon in March 2010. Is she still living in the Oakland area?



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