“Switch Annie”– A Nice Railroad Story

This wonderful story about a rather unique woman sounds like some type of movie line. It differs slightly, as the railroad does not appear to be as evil as usually portrayed in the movies. I hope “Switch Annie” lived happily ever after. Maybe some one knows.

Milwaukee Sentinel February 3, 1895


Anna P. Gsandtner, better known in railroad circles as “Switch Annie,” is a bride. She was married on Jan. 25 to Charles W. Green, a yard Foreman in the employ of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul road.

“Switch Annie” is one of the most unique characters in the West. For years she has enjoyed the reputation of being the only regularly employed woman switchtender in the country. She has been in the service of the St. Paul road for about fifteen years and has had charge of a set of the most complicated switches on the system, but never had an accident happen near her post of duty. She has performed hard manual labor in all kinds of weather and did it with such ability that she soon won the distinction of being one of the most faithful employees of the road. She was paid the regular salary of $50 a month for twenty-six day’s work and extra pay for all over time.

“Switch Annie” became a switch thrower by fate. She was the successor of her father, who was killed near the switches she attended to. She is now about 32 years of age. When a girl of about twelve summers she assisted her invalid father at this work. Her father had been injured by a train, and so the company promised to employ him as long as he lived. He was placed in charge of the switches just east of the West Milwaukee shops and the company built him a home near by. Annie often assisted him in his work and became familiar with the switches, so one day years ago when he was struck by a train and killed she was ready to take his place. Being left without means of support Annie applied to the company for work and was placed in full charge of the switches. As the traffic in the the yard where she was stationed increased her position became more responsible, but she was always equal to the occasion. Up to three years ago she threw the switches alone, but at that time the work became too much for one person, so she was given an assistant. She resigned her position last summer when she became engaged to Green, who was the yardmaster and her superior. Her husband is about 40 years of age and up to the time of her marriage was a widower. Father Naughton performed the ceremony.

Dennis Pajot

Comment (1)

  1. This post was originally posted in the old forums of the website which is no longer available. I thought I’d add some of the comments which add to the story.

    TManz: I have been interested in Switch Annie for some time, and this article adds detail to the story. The Milwaukee Magazine (Milwaukee Road publication) of May 1943 reports that Mrs. Green passed away on April 6, 1943, at the age of 84. The 1895 newspaper article says she was “about 32 years of age” at the time of her marriage, born around 1863, making he 80 years old at the time of her death. I would put more trust the 1895 newspaper account.

    If she began assisting her disabled father at age 12, that would be around 1875, making the time of his death and her subsequent hiring by the RR about 1879. The 1895 article also says her father was in charge of switches “east of the West Milwaukee Shops”. The shop complex was not built until 1879-1880, but there was (and still is) a junction called the Cut-Off east of where the shops were later built. It was customary at the time, in many industries, that if a worker was injured in the service of the company, that he would be guaranteed lifetime employment in a less-strenuous position. The fact that Mr. Gsandtner was assigned to throw switches at a busy junction, indicates that he was still able to get around fairly well. One or more missing fingers was a very common injury among railroaders in the days of link-and-pin couplers.

    Annie was doing a man’s work nearly a century before the modern feminist movement, and was quite a celebrity during her her time with the RR. I suspect there are many more newspaper articles about her.

    Dennis: While researching the city hall building issue in 1882/83, I came across an earlier article on “Switch Annie” in the Milwaukee Sentinel of January 19, 1883. Again, a nice story about a well respected young woman.

    Dennis Pajot

    Milwaukee Sentinel January 19, 1883

    Sketch of “Switch Annie” of the Milwaukee & St. Paul Road

    “Switch Annie.”

    Probably the only female switch-tender in railway employ in the United States is Annie Gsandtner, who is employed by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Company, at the stockyard “cut-off” in this city. “Switch Annie,” as she is known far and wide among train men, is a comely-looking young woman of 24 years, with round, full features and a pleasant eye, and has, for the past eight years, had charge of seven important switches, which she has tended through summer and winter. The tracks for which she is responsible are the main lines of the La Crosse and Prairie du Chien divisions, and several sidings in use at the stock yards. From 6 o’clock each morning until the same hour in the evening, she answers the calls of the half hundred trains passing over these lines. With the warning whistle of the locomotive the door of the small shanty located close to the rails opens and a figure clad in an overcoat and a red turban appears, throws the switch, and by a wave of the hand gives the signal that all is well. The young woman was interviewed by a reporter yesterday, and said: “I have been here eight years. I commenced by helping my father when I was 15 years old. Then he had charge of all the switches. Now he commences work at 6 o’clock in the evening and works till 6 in the morning. Then I go on and have charge of the work during the day. I know every railroad boy on the five roads which I tend. There are the three divisions of the St. Paul Road, the Milwaukee & Northern, and the Wisconsin Central. When it is stormy of course it isn’t very pleasant work, but when the weather is nice I like it very much. I get $40 a month for my work.” The father and daughter live near the stock yards, and while on duty have s small building fitted up in a cosy manner, which they occupy. When the girl was first seen by a reporter, she was standing in the center of the railroad track gesticulating wildly. The engineer in charge of the locomotive was asked what it was, the figure in a bright red dress and a man’s overcoat, with wildly-flying hair, appearing of such a nondescript character as to be unrecognizable as a woman. “Why, that ‘Switch-Annie,” said he, “everybody knows here. She has thrown switches as a regular for the last eight or nine years and was known to every railroad man in the country before that. She’s signaling now for us to come ahead,” and suiting the action to the word he reversed the lever and as the engine passed, shouted from his window: “Good luck, Annie,” the usual salutation by the train men.

    Yance I found a few more articles on Switch Annie by chance recently which updated her story. It appears that she may still have relatives in Milwaukee by the name of Canavan. One grandson of hers died as a pilot in World War 2 and another died last year in Colorado. Possibly a third, Edward Canavan, was a Deputy Fire Chief for the MFD in the 60s and early 70s.

    Milwaukee Journal, February 12, 1939

    Nations’s No. 1 Lady Switch Tender: Anna Gsandtner Green Is Almost 80

    In the old days, the newspapers wrote about her because she was the only regularly appointed female switch tender in the United States.

    They called her tall and lithe; a perfect type of the fine, fresh, young German girl, one railroad president said she was.

    She was, they all said, the railroad man’s heroine.

    And now time has drifted by, and who remembers Mrs. Anna Green or Anna Gsandtner or Switch Annie?

    They are all one and the same and “they” live in a room at 526 W. National av.

    Two Red, Two Yellow Apples

    The room is a small room. There are lots of funny old paper bags standing around. On the walls are lithographs of Christ. In a bowl on a chair are two red and two yellow apples.

    Two apples are floating in water because they were dry apples. Dry apples in water fill out and get fat and rosy looking again.

    Apples are like people. People in happy surroundings become happy again fat and rosy looking.

    Mrs. Anna Green was in one of those homes for old people and they put her in a house where there was little fire and less friendliness, and like apples, Mrs. Green began to shrink.

    She took sick. The “eats” didn’t agree with her; 50 pounds shriveled away; nobody paid much attention; nobody until she got to the rooming house on National av., and there like those apples in the water-warmth and friendliness seeped in again.

    Next June, Switch Annie will be 80.

    About 70 Years Ago

    About 70 years ago she began helping her father, who tended the switches at the Milwaukee stockyards, and when he was killed, tending to his duty. Annie Gsandtner became Switch Annie in her own right.

    That was 1882, and the papers of half a century ago wrote that Switch Annie “could stand on the track and swing herself onto the footboard of a switch engine with as much grace and ease as any man in the yards.”

    They said too that she made fewer mistakes than the men did; that she never cost the Milwaukee road a dollar for repairs. She wore a big straw hat, skirts that touched the ground and heavy gauntlets.

    One day before her father died, he forgot about the switches. Annie dashed across the track, saved the train from being wrecked.

    It was she, too, who in one of the city’s worst strikes, in 1894, was told by a gang to “get the hell out” as a train approached.

    “Get out yourself,” said Annie, and the fellows did after she had biffed one of them squarely on the jaw. Why shouldn’t they call her heroine?

    For 25 years she took care of the trains that growled hack and forth between Milwaukee and La Crosse and Prairie du Chien. During the day she sat in a little red shanty that has long since vanished knitting when not throwing switches.

    Later she married Charles Green, yardmaster: on her $35 a month had saved enough to buy a lot in the town of Greenfield. When he died, she was for a few years matron at the Union station here.

    Pensions and Passes

    Then for a while she had to live on charity, but that rubbed the wrong way. An old age pension helps her now.

    And she has a pass from the railroad, but what good’s a pass? A pass won’t take you to a warm place in the sun; friendships don’t arrive on passes either— no more than apples keep fresh forever unless you float them in a bowl of water.

    Milwaukee Journal, April 5, 1943

    Famed Years Ago as ‘Switch Annie,’ She’s Dead at 84

    The only regularly appointed woman switch tender in the United States, Mrs. Anna Green, remembered from a half century ago as “Switch Annie,” died Sunday at Milwaukee county hospital. She was 84 and had been taken to the hospital from St. Joseph’s Home for the Aged, 504 W. Galena st., where she lived the last few years.

    Years ago the newspapers often wrote of “Switch Annie,” who as Anna Gsandtner at the age of 12 began to help her father tend switches for the Milwaukee road. When he was killed at his work Anna, then 16, was given his job. The papers at that time wrote that Switch Annie “could stand on the track and swing herself onto the footboard of a switch engine with as much grace and ease as any man in the yards.”

    Until she married Charles W. Green, a Milwaukee road yardmaster, when she was 32, Mrs. Green operated the switches.

    Mrs. Green, whose husband died 25 years ago, is survived by a daughter, Mrs. James Canavan, Milwaukee, and two grandchildren. Burial will be in Calvary cemetery.

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