Women in Transportation History: Olive Dennis, US Railroad Civil Engineer

Olive Dennis (1885-1957) was an innovative and influential civil engineer in the U.S. railroad industry at a time when technical opportunities for women in that transportation sector were few and far between. Dennis, who was born in the Pennsylvania community of Thurlow and moved to Baltimore with her family when she was six, became only the second woman to receive an engineering degree from Cornell University. In 1920, she was hired by the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad to work in in its engineering department as a bridge designer.

Just over a year later, Dennis was reassigned to a new position that would define the remainder of her career. B&O, concerned about retaining female passengers (a large part of its traditional ridership) in the face of increased competition from buses and automobiles, wanted bring about various engineering upgrades to make travel on the railroad’s trains more appealing and comfortable. In her new and pioneering role as a service engineer, Dennis was put in charge of developing and overseeing these upgrades.

From the time she stepped into this position to her retirement in 1951, Dennis created and introduced a number of far-reaching improvements to make train travel more enjoyable. These enhancements included reclining seats; stain-resistant upholstery; ceiling lights in passenger cars that could be easily dimmed at night; window vents that brought fresh air in and kept dust out; expanded dressing rooms (complete with paper towels and liquid soap) for women; and air-conditioning aboard the trains. Dennis’s groundbreaking amenities for B&O passengers were eventually adopted not only by rival railroads but also airlines and bus companies.

“No matter how successful a business may seem to be,” Dennis once explained, “it can gain even greater success if it gives consideration to the woman’s viewpoint.” She also had the distinction of being the first female member of the American Railway Engineering Association.

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