The 20th century civil engineer who changed train travel at the B & O

Olive Dennis
November 20, 1885 - November 5, 1957 

Train travel was not a terribly pleasant experience in the early 1900s until Olive Dennis, a civil engineer, came to work at the B & O Railroad in 1920. Passenger seats were stiff, the air was stale, schedules were confusing and the dining car food was uninspired. By the time Ms. Dennis retired three decades later, she had transformed the B & O Railroad passenger service into a model of civilized travel.  

Her innovations and inventions combined her engineering skills with her sensibilities as a woman. This was exactly what B & O Railroad President Daniel Willard had in mind when he promoted Ms. Dennis from a bridge draftswoman to service engineer. He charged her with making railroad travel more comfortable and competitive.  

Photo courtesy of the  B & O Railroad Museum

Photo courtesy of the B & O Railroad Museum

For the first two years in her new position, she travelled 100,000 miles over 5,000 miles of track to observe and talk with customers.   

Over the course of her career, Ms. Dennis simplified the railroad timetable, redesigned seats and added reclining features, developed the Dennis Ventilator (later patented) to bring fresh air to each passenger seat, designed bassinettes and bottle warmers for use by parents with children and developed a fleet of buses for B & O passengers to travel from Jersey City to Manhattan. Perhaps most famously, she designed the now-collectable blue and white china that was a hallmark of B & O dining cars.  

Photo by Kathi Santora at B & O Railroad Museum, Baltimore 

Photo by Kathi Santora at B & O Railroad Museum, Baltimore 

Photo by Kathi Santora at B & O Railroad Museum, Baltimore

Photo by Kathi Santora at B & O Railroad Museum, Baltimore

Even as a child, Ms. Dennis showed hints of her future career. She built houses and furniture for her dolls rather than sewing clothes. For her brother, she built a model streetcar that included trolley poles and reversible seats. 

Ms. Dennis graduated from Western High School and earned a bachelor's degree from Goucher College in 1908. She later earned a master's degree in mathematics and astronomy from Columbia University and taught math in a Washington vocational school.  

After 10 years of teaching, she had still not lost interest in becoming an engineer. She attended two summer sessions of engineering school at the University of Wisconsin, and then transferred to Cornell University, where she graduated with a civil engineering degree.  

Service Engineer Olive Dennis consults with Alden B. Lawson, Assistant Engineer, Motive Power & Equipment (standing) and Frederick H. Einwaechter, Chief Engineer, Motive Power & Equipment (seated). The photograph was taken in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Mt. Clare, around 1947-1948.  Photo courtesy of the  B & O Railroad Museum

Service Engineer Olive Dennis consults with Alden B. Lawson, Assistant Engineer, Motive Power & Equipment (standing) and Frederick H. Einwaechter, Chief Engineer, Motive Power & Equipment (seated). The photograph was taken in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Mt. Clare, around 1947-1948.

Photo courtesy of the B & O Railroad Museum

Olive Dennis was the second woman to earn an engineering degree from Cornell and the first woman to be elected to the American Railway Engineering Association in 1923. For many years, she remained the only woman graduate civil engineer in Baltimore. 

She lived with her sister, Hazel, on the 900 block of Belgian Avenue. Ms. Dennis died on November 5, 1957. She and her sister are buried side-by-side in Woodlawn Cemetery.  

Read more: 

Thank you to The B & O Railroad Museum, Baltimore, for sharing their archival photographs of Olive Dennis

Back Seat Engineer, Baltimore Sun Magazine, Helen Delich, 11/2/47 

Can a woman be a civil engineer? Miss Dennis says “yes” and proves her answer by being one, Baltimore & Ohio Magazine, January, 1921 

She took the pain out of the train; Innovator: One of the first women to earn a Cornell engineering degree, Olive Dennis helped make rail travel less complicated and more comfortable, The Baltimore Sun, Fred Rasmussen, November 23, 1997 

www.thefamouspeople.com, accessed 12/28/17