SHERIDAN — Sheridan resident Merry Potter retired from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad in 2009 after 33 years of work as one of just a handful of female locomotive engineers in the industry.
Potter’s career began out of necessity, rather than a lifelong love of trains. As a young married couple, she and her husband Dave moved to Edgemont, S.D. when he took a job with BNSF (just Burlington Northern at the time).
“There weren’t hardly any jobs in Edgemont,” she said, about her career prospects. “It is a really small town, so he (Dave) talked me into putting my application in as a clerk (with BNSF). They had already hired all the clerk positions and only thing they had left was a brakeman’s position and so I took it.”
With her acceptance, Potter became the first female brakeman in BNSF history.
Though the brakeman’s position is a labor-intensive one, Potter stuck with it until some fellow employees encouraged her to pursue training to be an engineer.
“The old head engineers who had been there for years and years talked me into putting an application,” she said, adding that the company required employees to work six months before applying for an engineer position.
After six months and three days on the job, she advanced to a position as fireman and began studying to be an engineer. She passed the engineer’s test in June 1977, relocated to Gillette and began her new career of operating locomotives.
Engineers are responsible for the operation and handling of the locomotive, or engine.
While requiring less physical work, the job of an engineer demands concentration and focus to keep the locomotive operating safely and efficiently.
“You are always having to think ahead because your train is a mile and a quarter long,” she said, noting that traveling at 45 miles per hour and weighing 10,000 tons or more, it will take a train at least a mile to come to a complete stop. “It started out when I hired out there were about 98 cars because the sidings were not long enough. One of the last coal trains I ran was about 123 cars plus the locomotives. You have to think all the time what your train is doing and how to handle it. Plus there are track conditions. You cannot stop in 50 feet. You are always thinking about possibilities ahead.”
With the coal boom of the 1980s, even more attention and time had to be paid to safety on the tracks. Potter said the sheer amount of railroad traffic required constant vigilance.
“The dispatching center in Fort Worth said the most they had seen on the tracks was 84 to 96 trains a day,” Potter said. “A typical work week in my earlier years was 80 hours at least. They would hold us there 14 to 16 hours, then you would only get eight or 10 (hours) off and then back to work. It was very grueling.”
“There were so many trains and not enough sidings to put trains on so sometimes you would sit on the train for 12 hours and not move an inch,” she said. “That is how they worked it back then. Back in the ’70s and early ’80s, they slowly got double main lines and more sidings. Now, working out of Gillette, there are double and triple main lines and sometimes four main lines.”
The Potter’s and their two young daughters relocated from Edgemont to Gillette in 1977 and worked there until moving to Sheridan in 1990. From Sheridan, Potter primarily operated on the Sheridan to Laurel, Mont. and Sheridan to Forsyth, Mont. route.
One of Potter’s daughters, Rhonda, eventually followed in her footsteps and worked as an engineer for BNSF for six years, the first mother-daughter engineers in the railroad’s history. Rhonda Potter said in a 1996 interview with The Sheridan Press that the job of engineer requires you to think, “two miles ahead of you and one mile behind you.”
When asked, Merry Potter said there was some resistance and reluctance on the part of her male employees to working with a female, but overall, she was treated well and respected.
“I had a lot of women ask me ‘how do you like working with all the guys’ and you know, a lot of them treated me like a lady and never really cussed and told filthy jokes,” she said. “I guess the way you act is how you are going to be treated. You act like a lady, you’ll be treated like a lady.”
Though she said trains are now heavily reliant on computers for safety and operation, she added that being an engineer on the train still does not allow a person to sit back and take in the view while traveling the rails. Instead, she said the railroad has many hazards.
In particular, she noted that engineers must keep an eye out for wildlife and cattle that tend to congregate on tracks. While the train is usually not able to stop to avoid hitting animals, a blow of the horn will hopefully encourage them to move off the tracks.
Other dangers involve humans or their vehicles on tracks. She said there are many instances of people disregarding railroad signs and causing an accident while trying to cross. And, inexplicably, she said there are many motorists and pedestrians who consider it a challenge to try to outrun a train on foot or in their car. And she knows of one instance where a drunk driver drove into the side of a moving train.
Despite the large responsibility, the occasional dangers and the constant time away from her family, Potter said she enjoyed her career and the unique experiences she had.
“I loved it,” she said. “I really did.”