By Rosemary Eng
Back in the ’70s when the train engineer uniform was the standard striped denim hats and overalls, Edwina (Curlie) Justus said to heck with that and climbed into the driver’s seat of a locomotive wearing a nice blouse and jeans and, of course, her eyelashes.
Justus was Union Pacific Railroad’s first female African-American train engineer. Her story is part of the exhibit, Move Over, Sir!: Women Working on the Railroad, now at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
At age 73, Justus is having fun being a railroading celebrity, speaking at the museum and being interviewed by local Iowa-Nebraska media.
She started out with jobs like restaurant hostess then moved on to be a $1.61-per-hour wireman at Western Electric Co. until she ran into a chum who worked for Union Pacific, a major employer in the Omaha region.
“Why don’t you see if you can get me on?” she asked.
She got on as a traction motor clerk in 1973, monitoring when traction motors were pulled out of trains.
Having no idea what a traction motor was, she asked if she could go see one. Off she went to the yard in her short skirt and heels.
Union Pacific was taking applications for engineers. Justus applied and was hired to work as a yard hostler. She emphasizes the job was for hostling, not “hustling.”
Hostlers move locomotives in the train yard, moving cars to be repaired and cleaned and picking up ones ready to go.
After three years Union Pacific said she could be a railroad engineer, but under the condition she work out of North Platte, about 300 miles east of Omaha.
When Justus found out, I cried. My dad said, ‘take the job. That’s a good job.”
At the time North Platte’s population was around 20,000. That’s partly why it was such a good railroading location. The book Union Pacific: The Reconfiguration: America’s Greatest Railroad from 1969 to the Present, called North Platte “the crown jewel of the Union Pacific system.” There were no big population centers to deal with there or congestion from other railroads.
North Platte was a big operation. Union Pacific is the largest railroad in the United States.
“I started student trips with old engineers,” she said.
Did they have good attitudes about it? “Oh, hell no! Guys didn’t want to work with me.”
Justus said, “one old guy tried to kiss me. Don’t forget my age; I was 33.”
The road had been partially paved by Bill Riley, she said. William A. Riley Sr. was the first African-American locomotive engineer hired at UPRR Bailey Yard. He started in 1968.
“I started short trips to Cheyenne, Gering, Scottsbluff. Picked up hogs, cattle, corn.”
She also hauled coal and sugar beets on her 12-hour shifts.
At railroad stop Sidney, Nebraska,” I was the only black person in town. You talk about being scared!
Even in the 2010 census Sidney was 92 per cent white.
Along the routes, she got to know hobos, otherwise called “unauthorized passengers.” She found them pleasant, intelligent with a liking for that way of life.
She helped get her late, ex-husband, Arthur Justus, a job with Union Pacific. If he was working the same train, “he would insist on running the train, smoking his Pall Mall Reds” while she had to sit on the brakeman perch, she said, still annoyed.
Justus brought a level of civility to the job. She always brought good, home-cooked meals for herself, chicken, chili.
Life on the rails was not without its hardships.
There were no toilets, just a pot in the front of the locomotive. The men didn’t care if they missed the pot and Justus would not go anywhere near it. She held it in for 12 hours unless there was a stop.
“Air conditioning was the window.”
Working conditions are better now. Engineers have cushioned seats, she said.
Her best memories were the middle of the night, with the roar of the engine, you could see the stars and the moon.
“Seeing the sun go down was one of the most beautiful times. I saw the Northern Lights, one of the things I will never forget as long as I live.”
Justus stopped working in 1998 and has been living in Omaha ever since. Her family originally left Arkansas where she was born for Omaha where her father and grandmother got jobs in the meatpacking houses. So Omaha is home.
She liked going to the museum, just across the Missouri River from Omaha, to talk about her railroading days.
From the moment I first started working on the railroad, I enjoyed myself, she says
Move Over, Sir! Women Working on the Railroad
Union Pacific Museum
200 Pearl St.
Council Bluffs, Iowa 51503
Until Oct. 28, 2017, free admission