Vol. 15



1940s; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

As a kid in Philadelphia in the 1920s and 1930s, my great-grandma Ruth Hilger looked for adventure. She loved to climb, so she climbed all the trees and lampposts she could find. One day a police officer saw her on a lamppost and made her get down. He told her to never climb lampposts again.

But she kept climbing.

Ruth was in high school when World War II started. Boys and men were leaving to go to war, and there weren’t enough people to work in jobs that men usually did. One day Ruth’s neighbor asked her to work at the railroad. Ruth was excited. When she told her father, he said, “No young lady would work at the railroad.”

This made Ruth so mad that she shouted, “I ain’t no lady — and I’m going!” She ran out the door before she could get into big trouble.

First Ruth worked as a switch tender in a tower. After she had worked on her first Friday, her boss said, “We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Ruth thought, “Working on a Saturday?” But she realized that the railroad was always open. She didn’t mind, because she was using her money to pay for college.

Ruth felt really bored while working in the tower. She saw men working as brakemen on the top of train cars. They would jump down off the top of a train, run across the freight yard, and jump onto another train to keep the trains moving. That was the job that Ruth wanted — climbing and jumping and running. Her bosses wouldn’t give her that job, but they needed someone to work manual switches in the yard. The men weren’t sure if a woman could do it. Ruth said, “Let me try.”

On her first day in the new job, she learned how to use an oil switching lamp to signal the trains. Between trains, she did schoolwork. Ruth found new adventures working in the freight yard. If she had to get to the other end of the freight yard, she would jump onto a slower train and catch a ride.

One day a train with a heavy load was coming. Ruth was signaling the train to keep moving, but the train was slowing down. Another train was coming the other way on the tracks! Ruth had to run to pull switches. As she came back across the tracks, an electric train sped by about ten feet behind her on the wrong track. Ruth didn’t even hear it. She could have been turned to mush!

Most people didn’t expect to see a woman working on the railroad. One night Ruth was talking to a man who had snuck onto a train. After a while he said, “Oh my gosh! You’re a woman!?” Another day a photographer asked if he could take Ruth’s picture throwing a switch. Ruth’s picture ended up being on a poster as “Molly Pitcher,”(1) showing the work that women were doing on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Magdalene Gilbertson; Ohio, USA


1. “Molly Pitcher” was a nickname given to a woman said to have fought in the American Revolutionary War. The name came to be applied to women who contribute to society in non-traditional ways.



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