Olive Wetzel Dennis (1885-1957, Class of 1921), made train travel comfortable and fashionable, giving riders what most could only wish for at home: air conditioning, bright upholstery on reclining seats, gourmet meals (locally sourced wherever the train went) on the railroad’s finest china, which “The Engineer of Service”(as she was called) designed.
After graduating from Goucher College in 1908, and receiving a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1909, Dennis taught mathematics in Washington, D.C. for 10 years. In 1919, she came to Cornell, receiving her civil engineering degree in only one year. Dennis got her first job building railroad bridges in rural Ohio – in the winter – with this boast: “I helped lay out the railroad line at Ithaca last December and I am rather anxious to get out on the road again. There is no reason that a woman can’t be an engineer simply because no other woman has ever been one. A woman can accomplish anything if she tries hard enough!”
Dining car china, designed by Olive Dennis ’21, was educational, too.
She went to work as a draftsman for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, eventually becoming a research engineer, working for the railroad until her retirement in 1951. During World War II, she served as a consultant for the federal Office of Defense Transportation. Dennis was the first woman admitted to the American Railway Engineering Association.
In a 1951 New York Times article, she reminisced: “Sometimes, my assignments would require my riding with the engineer of a locomotive during speed and safety checks. But I never took advantage of being a woman.” She was not always accepted into the “ranks of track officialdom” by the executives of other lines. “The worst snag was when the B. & O. asked another road for a pass for her. It came back made out to ‘Oliver Dennis.’ Returned with the notation that it should have been issued to ‘Miss Olive Dennis,’ it was changed to read, ‘Miss Olive Dennis, daughter of Engineer Oliver Dennis.’”
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