Women in Transportation History: Sarah Kidder, 1st Woman to Run a Railroad

Sarah Clark Kidder (c. 1839-1933) was the first woman in the world to run a railroad. Her husband John Flint Kidder, whom she married in 1870, became president of the California-based Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad (NCNGRR) in 1884. After he died in 1901, Sarah – who now found herself in control of three-fourths of NCNGRR’s capital stock – was elected by a vast majority to serve as the railroad’s new president.

Despite her inexperience managing any business, Sarah proved to more than up to the challenge of overseeing NCNGRR’s operations. Her husband had helped make the 22-mile line both a major economic force and popular means of transportation in Nevada County, but he also left the company heavily in debt. Sarah acted vigorously to not only erase the debt but – through attracting more freight and passengers for the trains — set the stage for NCNGRR to earn higher-than-before profits. Her efforts quickly proved successful. By the end of 1903, NCNGRR had its most profitable year ever.

Sarah was able to pay off $79,000 in funded debt and $184,122 interest on the debt; declare $117,000 in dividends on the company’s stock, and add $180,000 to this surplus. She also focused intently on NCNGRR’s infrastructure needs. In a bold action for any woman during the early 20th century, she managed to secure a loan from a San Francisco bank to construct a new cross-braced framework (trestle) to support the railroad line’s bridge crossing over the Bear River. At 173 feet, this trestle was the highest one in the United States at the time.

Sarah managed to accomplish all of this and more in face of multiple demands, including a drawn-out legal challenge to her ownership of NCNGRR. The challenge came from the son of her husband’s one-time business partner, and she was ultimately able to prevail against him in court after a decade of legal battles.

By the time Sarah retired in 1913, NCNGRR was in much better shape financially than it had been before she took over the enterprise or would ever be again after she left. She ended up moving to San Francisco, where she spent the remaining years of her long and productive life.

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