Women in Rail Spotlight: Hydie McAlister, Sharon Beach
In 2017, Hydie formed RCR Rail Co., a subsidiary of McAlister Assets, to focus on Class I rail-served industrial and logistic park development and operations—specifically in locations that Union Pacific (UP) and BNSF deemed as having “unmet needs” in Texas and the Southern United States.
Just prior to establishing RCR Rail Co., Hydie and her father, Jim McAlister Sr., co-founded McAlister Investment Real Estate. Hydie brought with her experience in asset selection, due diligence, investor relations and capital formation from work at the family investment firm where she started her career in 1991.
In 2018, Hydie co-founded McAlister Assets, a private equity and alternative investment firm, with business partner Sharon Beach, whom Hydie had recruited to join McAlister Investment Real Estate. Beach had spent 25 years with Merck & Co., Inc., working on new market development, solution analysis and sales, and serving on regional and national task forces.
Hydie and Beach launched their first industrial park in February 2020. The 137-acre RCR Hempstead Logistics Park is located at the intersection of US Highway 6 and US Highway 290 in Hempstead, Tex., and serves the greater Houston area. With on-site partner R. J. Corman Railroad Group, the park offers transloading and manifest service from UP.
RCR Taylor Logistics Park in Taylor, Tex., opened in January 2021. This 755-acre park offers transloading, manifest, unit train and storage with service from both UP and BNSF. It is strategically located 35 miles northeast of Austin and is ready to serve the growing central Texas and Southern U.S. rail corridors.
Hydie and Beach not only developed and raised $70,000 for both parks, but also raised $35,000 in land funds for the base business of McAlister Assets, investment real estate.
Future parks are on the horizon, according to the pair, who provided Railway Age with the following historical highlights of women in railroading:
“Since Feb. 28, 1827, when the first U.S. railway was chartered for commercial transport of passengers and freight, all aspects of the rail industry have been dominated by men. However, in 1855, two sisters, Susan and Catherine Shirley (ne. Morningstar) were hired [by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad] to manage the cleaning and organizing of passenger car interiors and to assist riders. Forty-five years later in 1872, the presence of women in the creation and operation of railways began when E. F. Sawyer was hired as the first female Burlington Railroad telegraph operator during Ulysses S. Grant’s tenure as President. Not far behind, in 1873, Union Pacific hired two women in Kansas City, Mo., as telegraph operators.
“Women have contributed to a number of railroading inventions. In 1879, Mary Elizabeth Walton developed a system to deflect emissions from locomotive smokestacks. She was awarded two patents for her pollution-reducing device. Nancy P. Wilkerson, a rancher’s daughter from Terre Haute, Ind., designed and created the cattle railcar in 1881. Using a rack and pinion system, she devised sliding partitions that separated the livestock and compartments for feed and water troughs.
“Both mechanical and ornamental [passenger railroad] improvements were made by civil engineer Olive Dennis and architect Mary Jane Colter in the late 1890s. Dennis introduced reclining passenger seats and individual window vents allowing fresh air into the cars while trapping dust. In 1870, inventor Eliza Murfey focused on railroad mechanics to improve how bearings on rail wheels responded to axles. The device, or packing, was used to lubricate the axles with oil, which reduced derailments caused by locked-up axles and bearings. Murfey held 16 patents for her invention.
“In 1901, a major leap toward the glass ceiling was made by Sarah Clark Kidder when she took over as the first female railroad president of California’s Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad. In 1931, Cora Mears Pitcher assumed her father’s role as president of the Silverton Northern Railroad in southwest Colorado.
“Dr. Mary Pennington revolutionized America’s food supply by designing the first refrigerated railcar in 1921 to ship flash-frozen food across the nation. Fleets of the refrigerated railcars were ordered by American railroads.
“Wartime presented further opportunities for women. In 1943, there were 3,000 women employed in railroad maintenance-of-way positions at Class I railroads.
“In addition, the railroad business had its own ‘Rosie’ in a world of ‘Rosie the Riveter’ women. In October 1944, 36-year-old Leah ‘Rosie’ Rosenfeld was the first woman hired by Southern Pacific Railroad as a telegrapher and clerk. She was recognized as the pioneer for gender equality in the rail industry upon her retirement in 1975.
Before Rosenfeld retired, Bonnie Leake became the first woman accepted by Union Pacific as a locomotive engineer in 1974. Close on her heels in 1976, Edwina Justus became the first African American woman to become a Union Pacific engineer. As a traction motor clerk, she visited a mechanical shop to learn locomotive operations, and as a self-described ‘fashion plate,’ she wore a dress and heels on the tour. When climbing on a locomotive and joking that operating locomotive seemed easy, the men at the shop challenged her to submit an application.
“As World War II ended, many women returned to more traditional roles. In the 1970s, women primarily held clerical positions at the more than 50 Class I’s.
“Today, a large number of positions created by digitalization and industry modernization have made gender irrelevant. There are many women leading railroads into the future. Nearly 20% of the Class I railroad executives are women. Among them: Ginger Adamiak, VP of Sales and Marketing, Energy and Chemical Products, Kansas City Southern; Norma Torres, President and CEO, Brownsville & Rio Grande International Railroad (Brownsville, Tex.); and Katherine Farmer of BNSF, the first female North American Class I President and CEO.
McAlister and Beach are also “Women of Steel,” a moniker often applied to women in the rail industry. They don’t think about being women in the rail-served industrial park development market. “We have a job to do and we get it done,” they say. “It’s not about working in a male-dominated industry, but about developing and operating successful rail parks.” McAlister and Beach continue to grow their company and strengthen the communities their rail parks serve through employment opportunities, new economic development, and philanthropic contributions.
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