RONKS, Pa. — Strasburg Rail Road’s first-ever all-female steam engine crew will run all trips for the Pennsylvania tourist line this Saturday, March 6.
The assignment coincides with International Women’s Day (March 8) and Women’s History Month.
In the cab will be Andrea Biesecker as engineer and Shelley Hall as fireman. They will run the train for all five scheduled trips over the 4½–mile carrier, at 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m., and 6 p.m.
It was Hall’s suggestion to deploy an all-women engine crew.
“I was just thinking that there aren’t many (railroads that) have had two in the cab with steam,” she tells Trains News Wire. “I just wanted to show girls that just because it’s mostly guys that do this job, women can do it too.
“For as long as Strasburg has been running trains (189 years) there hasn’t been an all-female engine crew, so I figured it was about time that it’s done once. It’s really rare for two women to be in the cab of a steam locomotive.”
Biesecker, who grew up in nearby Parkesburg dreaming of working at Strasburg Rail Road, says, “Being in control of all of that horsepower — steam is a whole different type of energy from internal combustion. It’s a force to be reckoned with.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like to fire, too, but running is pretty intense; it’s an adrenaline rush when you open that throttle.”
Both women came to engine service through the same route: the railroad’s shop. Biesecker graduated from nearby Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in 2009 and immediately applied for a job as a machinist. After an intense interview with “four or five vice presidents and bosses sitting across the table from me,” she was hired. She worked her way into engine service, qualifying as a fireman on March 23, 2012, and as an engineer on Dec. 14, 2014. She qualified on No. 475, the same Baldwin-built 1906 former Norfolk & Western 4-8-0-type engine she will run on Saturday.
As a child, she recalls her father taking her to the nearby Rough & Tumble Engineers Historical Association museum, which features steam tractors, a replica Shay locomotive, and a 15-inch gauge Crown amusement-park engine. “As a kid, I was attached to the trains,” she says. Later, as a college student, she drove past the railroad every day on her way to and from classes at Stevens, further intensifying her desire to work for Strasburg. She often stopped by to admire the engines, meet employees, and get familiar with those who would eventually hire her.
She owns a 1901 Russell steam tractor as a hobby, but, as she says, “there are no paid jobs running a traction engine, so that (working for Strasburg) became the goal.
“I am honored,” she says, “to be the first female machinist, first female engineer, and now to be part of the first all-female crew” on the railroad. Previously a full-time employee at Strasburg, she now teaches welding at her alma mater, Stevens, and since August, has transitioned to part-time work at the railroad.
Hall likewise came through the railroad’s shop: She was the company’s first female welder. She started on Jan. 19, 2015, and qualified as a locomotive fireman on May 24, 2019. A certified pressure vessel welder, she previously worked at a welding shop for 15 years.
“I worked hard to become a welder and a fireman for the railroad,” she says. “Working in a male-dominated field is not easy, and sometimes you have to work harder because it’s not a given that you know what to do because you’re a woman.”
Asked what she likes best about the job, she says, “The physical labor of it, and it can be challenging, knowing what to do and when to do it — keeping the water up, keeping the fire up.”
Biesecker and Hall are the only women qualified as engine-service employees among the 24 qualified engineers and 32 firemen on Strasburg’s roster. In all, the railroad employs 59 full-time and 101 part-time people, of which nine full-timers and 26 part-timers are women.
Celebrated since 1911, International Women’s Day is, according to its website, a global event to honor “the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women” and to mark “a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.”
Of that goal, Biesecker notes, “I’m proud to be alive in an era where merit and advancement are based on skill and not gender. In a male-dominated industry, I have worked hard to prove myself as an equal to others in the railroad industry.”
Founded in 1832, Strasburg is one of the earliest and best-known tourist railroads in America, dating to 1959. It owns a roster of four steam locomotive in addition to No. 475: 2-6-0 type No. 89, 2-10-0 type No. 90, 0-6-0 type No. 31, and an 0-6-0 type that is used for Thomas the Tank Engine events. It also handles freight for a variety of local customers, usually but not always with a diesel locomotive.
CORRECTION: Christopher Pollock is the photographer. An earlier version of this article did not credit him. 2:51 p.m. Central standard time. March 5, 2021.