Right on track

Railway museum’s only female engineer hooked on trains
Sat, 07/29/2023 - 8:30am

On one of the warmest days in August 2015, John Orne, a train engineer at Boothbay Railway Village Museum, invited his wife Cathy to join him in the cab of one of the steam-powered locomotives. He showed her how the train works, and she helped operate the boiling hot engine despite the weather. She was hooked.

Cathy Orne said she now even misses the smell of burning coal when she is away from the train. This May, she became the first woman with the museum to obtain a high pressure boiler operator license and become a train engineer.

"It’s something that you don't normally see a woman doing,” she said. “I like the power. I like the smell of the coal. I just like moving it. It just makes me feel like I’m doing something."

She primarily operates train #6, a narrow-gauge locomotive that takes visitors around the village on summer weekends. The locomotive was built in 1934 by Henschel & Sohn in Germany and operated out of Stettin, Poland, now called Szczecin. It came to the U.S. in the mid ’60s.

Cathy Orne said it was designed to be operated by two people to aid in smaller construction projects; due to its size and capabilities, it has to be close to water and coal. "I just like the history of it. It’s old. It’s still running because we take good care of it. I just like to see things work."

She said driving the train is the easy part once you know how to do it. She explained the series of levers and controls to change the locomotive’s speed and the signals to notify others of the engineers' intentions.

The Ornes have been involved with the museum since 2015, and now often operate the train together. They also occasionally help at the Maine Forest and Logging Museum which has an antique train and is in Bradley.

"We're always chatting in the cab,” John said. “People kind of catch on real quick that we are a couple. We enjoy working together and spending time together."

Cathy said she learned a lot about the train operation over the years from her husband, a licensed Engineer in Charge. After that day in August, John taught her how to shovel coal, maintain the fire and move the train.

"She did good, really picked it up quick,” said John. "She pays attention to detail, she's good with maintaining the water level (and) just watching what she’s doing in the cab."

The hard part, according to Cathy, is the boiler. Locomotives like Boothbay #6 run off the steam built up from the fire in their belly. That steam creates pressure that, alongside a meticulous balance of heat, water and oil, moves the pistons and powers the locomotive. According to the museum, preparing the engines takes about three hours, and engineers have to add oil twice a day and tend the fire after each run.

Running the train takes careful attention and training: “If your water level gets too low, you could burn something. But if your water gets too high, or your fire gets too low, lots of things can happen. So, you've got to know what you're doing," Cathy said.

To get her license, she had to learn a lot of new math to operate the boiler. She said she had to learn about pressures, valves and other features of how a steam engine operates and can be safely controlled.

Once she decided to get the certification, it took about a year of studying and many hours of experience before she passed the test. She said she aced it, but is happy with her current license and has no plans to pursue a more advanced one. 

She loves to volunteer at the museum and is there most weekends in the summer. She loves being a friendly face for visitors, especially kids. She said she likes to show them that a woman can be an engineer. In fact, if she could talk to her younger self, she would tell her to take it up sooner. Now, she wants to encourage others to do the same.

“As long as you have the training, anyone can do it, and we are short of engineers in this state,” she said. “It’s fun. You have the power. You have this big, massive machine and you're actually making it run. It makes me feel good that I can move this."