Shelley Hall – Blood, Sweat and Steam

“Trains aren’t just for boys”

Shelly tops off the steam oil on Strasburg No. 89 before a day of firing. Photo by Chris Pollock.

Railroading is undeniably a boys’ club. Our society has branded the dirty and vigorous work of running and maintaining locomotives as a “man’s job”. However, trains aren’t just for boys, as today’s highlight will prove. Through years of a passion for steam power, Shelley Hall established herself as the cardinal that further broke down the glass ceiling inside the steam shops at the Strasburg Rail Road. Today on Behind the Throttle, we talk with yet another pioneer of girl power in the world of trains.

Shelley preforming maintenance inside No. 90’s smokebox. Photo by Chris Pollock. 

Shelley was born in 1979 into a family of steam enthusiasts. Her family before her used traction engines to make a living, and as time went on her family adopted the tradition of running and maintaining these historic pieces of equipment. Her childhood did not revolve around trains; her fascination rather drew from the mechanics behind steam power. As a child, Shelley joined the Tuckahoe Steam and Gas Association, an organization that puts on demonstrations as to how old machinery was used back in the day of steam and early gas power. At Tuckahoe, Shelley’s more casual interest in steam manifested into a sincere admiration and respect. Through high school, Shelley remained a member of the association and helped run the several events that the organization hosted. Helping out with this historical society gave her an appreciation for the mechanics of steam that make it seem alive, she explained while recounting experiences of demonstrating the raw power of boiling water. 

Around 2001 Shelley took up a job working in a welding shop. She took this new challenge as an opportunity to learn, and began taking welding courses at a local community college. On the job Shelley also picked up knowledge in blacksmithing and fabrication, skills that would earn their keep on Shelley’s resume. After working there for nearly 14 years, Shelley was encouraged by another steam enthusiast to apply for a job inside the shops at the Strasburg Rail Road. Andrea Biesecker, previously featured on this blog, had Shelley fill out an application to join her in the shops at Strasburg. In January 2015, she entered the backshops at Strasburg for the first time, the first female welder at the age-old establishment. As Shelley began her first project, she reminisced on a feeling of pride and accomplishment: she was now part of a historic organization, where she could call herself the first of a new generation.

Shelley dropping the fire after a day of shoveling coal on the road to paradise. Photo by Chris Pollock. 

While being a welder in the shops was an occupying job, Shelley soon developed an interest in the meat-and-potatoes of the famous tourist railroad. In January of 2018, she entered the brakeman training program, and exited with her certification later that year. Soon after, she began another rise to success with training to be a fireman on the steam locomotives. This newfound labor of love ignited a fire inside her that drove her to learn more about steam locomotives. Shelley outlined to me how difficult it was to fire a locomotive at first, especially with being left handed. She specifically mentioned the struggles she faced with getting coal to the front right corner of the firebox, an area that most student firemen struggle with; however, there was one day where firing just “clicked”, and as she explained to me “All the puzzle pieces fell into place”. As she got a better understanding of the principles and the mechanics of keeping the fire even and hot, she was able to feed the engines just right. In 2019, Shelley became a certified fireman, and joined the small club of female engine crew. “The few, the proud!”, she joked with me.

Shelley doing what she does best inside a boiler in the Strasburg shops. Photo by Chris Pollock. 

Shelley is part of a small minority in the world of train and steam enthusiasts. However, with the magic of social networking, Shelley has met a handful of other women who share her passion. Through Facebook, friendships between these ladies of steam have developed into a group of women who look out for each other, celebrate their accomplishments, and just talk about trains and their lives. Seeing these other women who share her passion has opened Shelley’s eyes to more women just like her, who all share a passion for steam and railroading. As she told me, “Thank goodness for Facebook! There are more girls out there who like steam!” Though Shelley has not met all of these women in person, they consider themselves a closely-knit group of friends. 

Shelley filling up the sand on No. 90 in preperation for a day of excursions. Photo by Chris Pollock. 

Working at Strasburg has given Shelley a whole new perspective on the livelihood that resolves around steam power. This new outlook has furthered Shelley’s ambition for preserving the hobby and getting the next generation involved. “The biggest thing is getting more kids involved with it”, Shelley explained to me, while she detailed the volunteer work that she does with Tuckahoe, and how the events cater to getting young people involved with the association. Additionally, Shelley hopes to further show that women can work with steam just as men can. “It isn’t just a boys thing”, she told me. She further conveyed her hopes that the future of steam preservation is representative of the harding women who’ve earned their keep working with steam, and hopes that the next generation will keep history alive through the wonders of steam power. 

The beast and it’s tamer. Photo by Chris Pollock. 

Thank you for reading this edition of Behind The Throttle, and thank you to Chris Pollock for contributing photos. Tune in next time for an interview with Kelly Lynch, the vice president of The Fort Wayne Rail Historical Society. For now, I’m Max Harris, and thank you for your continued support.