Western Women We Love

Railroad’s First Lady

The traditional Sarah Kidder surprised everyone with her success.


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If any man in 1901 had been asked about women in business, he’d have laughed and said they didn’t have any “business sense.”

Besides, women were too busy running the home and raising the children, they shouldn’t dirty their little dainty hands with something as competitive and ambitious as business.

No one could say that to Sarah Kidder. Her presidency of California’s Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad is known as its “Twelve Golden Years” because she made the line more profitable than it had ever been or ever would be—outdoing her late husband who built the line and the men who eventually bought her out in 1913.

Nobody is sure how this traditional woman—she believed that females should give the home “all their attention” and opposed suffrage—got such business sense or where she learned to make remarkable profits, but it was a good show by the first woman in the world to ever head a railroad.

Petticoat Railroading

Sarah Clark Kidder and her husband John were married in 1870 and soon moved to Grass Valley, California. John came to town as superintendent of a new railroad, but he soon bought it out and became the “most important man to the welfare and progress of Nevada County,” as he was eulogized in April 1901.

His lovely wife was known for her magnificent scroll-saw mansion with its beautiful flower gardens that hosted tea parties and other coveted gatherings. She volunteered for an orphan society and raised their adopted daughter Beatrice. Mother and daughter were known for wearing the lovely lace gowns Sarah sewed.

When John died, he signed over all his stock to his wife—giving her control of three-quarters of the capital stock. On May 7, 1901, Sarah was elected president of the railroad by a vast majority of the shareholders.  She had very big shoes to fill.

Her husband had built the 22-mile line into a major economic force in Nevada County. The rail line originally hauled lumber, farm produce and gold destined for the U.S. mint in San Francisco, but it soon became popular with families who liked riding the rails along the exciting route into the mountains—over four trestles, around sweeping curves and through tunnels—and out to picnic grounds.  It ran from Nevada City to Colfax where...

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