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Nevada’s first black, female engineer recalls pioneering career

It took persistence for Delorise Hall to get a job with the Union Pacific railroad, and in 1981, at 22, she became the first black female locomotive engineer in Nevada. She kept that job until she retired in 2016.

“I was interviewed in 1978, and they passed me over a couple of times until they hired me as a switchman/brakeman in 1979,” Hall said. “They’d hired another woman for that position and she didn’t do that well, so they were leery about hiring women. Once they told me I couldn’t do it, I was determined to prove them wrong.”

As a switchman Hall directed the trains and helped connect and disconnect cars and switch them among the tracks at the switchyard, west of Main Street in downtown Las Vegas.

“The roundhouse was about where the Smith Center (for Performing Arts) is today,” Hall said. “We told the engineers how fast to go and how to hook the trains together. We guided the engineers with hand and flag signals. At that time, we didn’t use radios.”

The switchyard eventually was moved to Arden, south of Blue Diamond Road, but Las Vegas was built around the switchyard that was the lifeblood of the city in its early days. The train station was at the west end of Fremont Street, where the Plaza is.

The single mother of two said working in the switchyard allowed her to spend more time with her children. She lived in West Las Vegas when she was hired, but with her engineer’s pay she was able to move to a larger home in east valley and eventually to North Las Vegas, where she lives now. When she moved up to engineer, she made runs to Los Angeles and Millford, Utah, and her extended family took care of the children during her 12-hour shifts.

“Mostly I went back and forth between here and Yermo, California,” Hall said. “I’ve only lived here and in Louisiana and didn’t like going up to Utah if I could avoid it. It was cold, and there was snow up there sometimes.”

Hall worked with a crew of five, with two in the caboose and three in the cabin of the engine.

“Of course there was racism,” Hall said. “They didn’t want black men in there, never mind black women. The way you handled it is you got out there, you did your job and you proved yourself.”

By the time she retired, she was training engineers.

“If they got in trouble, they had to come to my class to get back with the train,” Hall said. “I really gained all of their respect.”

Matthew Leet, senior manager of termanal operations at Union Pacific Railroad in Las Vegas, said Hall always had a great attitutude.

“Delorise was an extremely valued employee who did an outstanding job for Union Pacific,” Leet said.

Mostly Hall thought of the work as a solid job that allowed her family to make a living. The worst days were when she saw a person or a car on the tracks and couldn’t stop before impact. It can take a train a mile or more to stop.

Hall said she enjoyed taking in the beauty of open land from 10 feet above the tracks.

“I saw a lot of pretty country,” Hall said. “I saw a lot of gorgeous sunrises and sunsets.”

Contact F. Andrew Taylor at ataylor@viewnews.com or 702-380-4532. Follow @FAndrewTPress on Twitter.

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