Julie Collins: Female steam locomotive engineer

Engineer in training Julie Collins stands with Dollywood’s steam locomotive “Cinderella”

At this point in my full and long life, young Julie Collins has appeared as another reminder some amazing and impressive people are still to be found. A trained medical professional, Julie Collins left the comfort of her previous vocation to become an engineer on a steam locomotive – a job normally reserved for a rugged individual. In what some might wave off as a temporary impulse, she has already put several years of hard and sweaty labor into achieving her goal, and there’s no indication she intends to vary from her direction.

Folks still around from the middle of the last century can recall steam locomotives belching massive plumes of smoke as they pulled their loads along the tracks. At the time, people seemed more excited by the still-new diesel locomotive, not knowing then that they would miss the older models.

As the last steam locomotives were leaving the landscape, early television was in its beginning. At first a novelty, neighbors gathered at the homes of those fortunate enough to own a set and happily watch the limited offerings on a snowy black and white screen. The popularity of television quickly underwent an explosion with many buying their own sets and soon had access to two or three different channels.

Any regional person of that time could hardly miss “The Cas Walker Show,” where the grocer, politician and entertainer Cas Walker offered quality local musicians to entertain the audience. In between the music, Walker hawked his store merchandise along with sharing his coon-hunting stories and his feelings about local politics. No one watching back then forgot the young Sevier County girl got up before daylight to travel with her uncle to appear on the show. In an early appearance and wearing a seemingly homemade dress, the young girl at first seemed out of place among the seasoned musicians.

As the young Dolly Parton stepped to the microphone, the audience was amazed at the strong, unique and beautiful voice coming from the young girl who became a regular on the show. Dolly’s appearance on Walker’s show and early local success reinforced a strong inner ambition enough for her to board a Nashville-bound bus shortly after her high school graduation to step into a life that eventually made her arguably America’s most beloved living celebrity.

With all her success, those around her report she still maintains her home-spun East Tennessee identity along with a strong concern for her mountain heritage. Over the years she has plowed many of her resources and time back into her East Tennessee roots. Among her many venues is her namesake Dollywood theme park. Originally opened as Rebel Railroad in 1961, the park went through several name changes until Dolly bought an interest in the then Silver Dollar City. In 1986 the park opened as Dollywood and has since underwent massive expansions, additions and redesigns until it was recently named as one of the top six theme parks in America.

Aside from the many new rides, shows, and attractions, the Dollywood Express steam locomotive ride remains a park icon as well as a popular ride where guests can even today have a realistic five-mile ride pulled by a genuine steam locomotive. The park currently has two actual steam locomotive engines – Klondike Katy and Cinderella. Both engines were used on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad during World War II and both was built by the Baldwin Locomotive Company in Eddystone, Pennsylvania. Cinderella, built in 1938, came to the then Silver Dollar City Park in 1977; while Kate, built in 1943, was a part of the original Rebel Railroad in 1961.

The park has a fully-functional train shop manned by experts who can repair the trains, or even completely restore an engine, with safety being a premier function. Engine operators (engineers) go through a lengthy and extensive training program which can last up to two years before they are qualified as operators. With the heat from the engine often adding 20 degrees to the outside temperature, only the most hardy and capable need to consider the job.

One of the engineers now on the verge of completing their certification is the first woman to be trained for the Dollywood job, and will be one of the few female steam locomotive engineers in America.

Julie Collins is a trim and attractive Knoxville native who, a minute younger than her twin sister LeAnne, is the daughter of Danny and Ann Pressley. Her parents operated Ruh and Presley Construction Company, which specialized in metal buildings, while Julie and her sister worked through their graduations from Halls High School in 1998. Julie then attended Lincoln Memorial University to earn a certification in neuro-diagnostic technology, which led her to jobs at St. Mary’s and Mercy Hospitals in Knoxville.

When Julie’s labs merged and moved out of town, she decided a professional break was in order and a Dollywood job would be a fun break. Assigned to the train crew, she soon became a team lead and developed a love for the old steam locomotives. To further her knowledge of trains, she applied to work in the train shop, where all the maintenance of the trains and tracks takes place. After three tries, she was finally accepted and became the park’s second woman ever to work in the shop.

She was then accepted to become a member of the train crew where she trained for the hot and rigorous job as a fireman. Julie was to do a job normally be held by a tough, worked-hardened male. Not one to shy from a challenge, she jumped into the job and in a short time was holding her own with the male firemen. After meeting the standards of being a locomotive fireman, she decided to take the next step and become the engineer who operated the train. She described the process, which is in many ways the equivalent of a college degree.

“A fireman is responsible for getting the firebox ready, getting the water in, starting the fire and shoveling the coal into the blazing fire box to get the steam and water pressure up to get up and back down the hill,” she said. “Part of the fireman’s job is to grease the engine after every four trips. When I first started the job I would go straight home and straight to bed after work. We do track work every week where we walk the entire track to check the gauge. I also work in the shop doing work on the train and have been inside the firebox drilling out storybolt holes. When I first started my whole body would be sore and it took a month get used to the labor part of the job.

“Everybody has to be a fireman before becoming an engineer and it takes quite a bit of time – two or three years – In training to become an engineer. Before we move the train we have to check that we have high enough pressure and water. Two whistles mean ‘High Ball’ and we can take off. The first thing an engineer does to begin the train’s movement is to put the Johnson bar into forward motion and let the car and engine brakes off. Then we start moving the throttle, where we kind of have to play with it and give it more in and out to determine speed.

“We have air brakes on both the engine and cars and both have to have plenty of power. Traction effort equates to horsepower on a locomotive and we have front and back sanders that dump sand to keep the wheels from slipping. You’ve got to know what you’re doing and my goal is to get signed off as an engineer. Our trip over the mountain is five miles and takes 20 minutes. Many guests on the train are experiencing their very first steam locomotive ride and will remember it forever.”

Back at home, Julie makes a complete transition from her day job when she swaps her overalls for fashionable clothing. She attends the North Knoxville Church of God and enjoys riding her quarter horse Beau and her two walking horses Blackfoot and Star. Along with her 19-year-old son Brad, she’s become a fan of large radio-controlled racing and they often travel to participate in those races.

“There’s a Facebook page called ‘Ladies of Steam’ that I follow,” Julie ended. “My sister is a coffee house manager and thinks that my job is cool and wants to work here now. It’s the most fun and exciting job I’ve ever had.”

-Jim Claborn is a retired history teacher and a historical reenactor, as well as a published historian.