In the mists of WWII, a group of five woman from Ravensdale became the first all woman railroad gang of the Northern Pacific and possibly the entire United States. And no, they did not take over trains with their six shooters. As a tie gang laborer, or Gandy Dancer, the women were responsible for maintaining and replacing railroad ties. This meant replacing ties that weighed almost 200 lbs each and swinging 10 lb sledges at 6 inch spikes. This was done in a climate that was cold, wet and muddy.
Mary Grady, gang member, describes the conditions in a 1972 Seattle Times article. “I’d get on one end of a railroad tie which was soaked with moisture and covered with ice, and Louise would get on the other, and we’d heave together to get it out of the sand. The tracks were heavy too. When it was very cold, the metal would stick to your skin if your gloves came off.”
And getting to work wasn’t a walk in the park either. Often the women would ride the little speeder cars in the rain, soaked to the bone before the shift even started. Louise Saftich, mother of seven, recalls the long nights after her shift. “My hands were numb many nights when I got home but I still had to cook and mend for the kids and my husband. A woman always has a double shift. The man can sit down and read the newspaper. “
They were part of the “Rosie the Riveter” driven women’s emancipation movement. However, these women weren’t inspired by the campaign. They didn’t want any of those “simple, indoor jobs”, referring to the defense plant that “Rosie” herself worked in. They did it because they saw a need to fill and they knew they were tough enough to handle it.
The first woman to join was Esther Mola, wife to section foreman Michele “Mike” Mola. With almost all able bodied workers off to war, there was a shortage of men laborers. Esther, despite being a mother of three, took on the job.
Louise Saftich and Mary Grady soon joined. They were wives of coal miners, tough pioneers and immigrants of the Black Diamond coal mining town. They stayed friends well past their 70s.
Born Maria Louise Belle was born in 1902 in Yugoslavia. At the age of 20, her and her husband, Anton Gradishnik, moved to Hobart. Like many new immigrants, they changed their last name to Grady, an Irish sounding name, in order to assimilate. They had three daughters.
German born Louise Burkelza moved to Black Diamond with her family when she was 3 years old. She grew up in a miners family. Her husband, Joseph Saftich, would later die of “black Lung”. She had 7 children, some of which still live in the area.
Anna Sachetto was married to Pasco Devino a railroad worker for the Milwaukee line. They must have had fun competing with each other. Both immigrated from Italy and had two children. Amelia Viola Knapp was married to tractor operator, James Knapp. Born, Amelia Viola Snider on June 6, 1914, in Clark, Washington, the daughter of Della and Harry. She had one son and one daughter with x`James Truman Knapp between 1933 and 1937. Before becoming a railroad worker, she was a sales lady. She died on September 19, 1996, at the age of 82, and was buried in Mount Vernon, Washington.
“We proved we could do a man’s work, but I always knew that anyways.” Mary Grady 1972
1. Duncan, D. (1972, July 2). Driftwood Diary. The Seattle Times, p. 4.
2. Welch, D. (1942). Words Simply Fail ‘Boss’ of Woman Workers. Seattle Post-Intelligencer.