There are numerous towns in New Mexico that owe their lives to the railroad. Many can also lay their deaths at the feet of that very same railroad, which quickly abandoned them when their services were no longer needed. One city that can trace the foundation of its modern character to the railroad but has now grown so far beyond it that the connection has nearly been lost is Albuquerque. Yet recently interest in the railroad has been growing in the Duke City. Aside from the popularity of the Rail Runner and National Train Day, there has been renewed attention given to the Albuquerque Rail Yards, which once employed 25% of the city’s workforce. The rail yards may have defined Albuquerque for the first half of the 20th Century, but for the last couple decades they have been quietly slipping from public view.
In fact, many Burqueños have never seen the rail yards. Or they have perhaps unknowingly seen them in Breaking Bad, Terminator 3, or any of countless features shot somewhere within the complex of massive industrial buildings. But over the last year the city has begun to look seriously at re-purposing the site, hiring an architectural firm, holding public meetings, and, for the first time, offering tours. Interest in these tours has been literally overwhelming, with hundreds waiting outside the gates for tours originally capped at 20 people. So, what’s so special about this place and why is there such heated discussion about what to do with it? In order to answer these questions, one has to know a little bit about the yards. Then one has to see these masterpieces of towering iron and colored glass for themselves. (In the meantime, you can click on these photos for a bigger view.)
The Albuquerque Rail Yards encompass 27.3 acres off 2nd St. in the Barelas neighborhood. Established by the Atlantic and Pacific (A & P) railroad in 1880, after Albuquerque was designated as the division point between the A & P and Santa Fe Railways, the chief function of the complex was to maintain and repair locomotives. Designation as a division point was important because it ensured that the most significant railroad activity in the region would be centered in the city.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, a locomotive generally left in the morning for a one-way trip of only 100-150 miles, underwent some basic repairs upon arrival, and then returned later in the day to its home shop for further maintenance. While early locomotives only managed 40,000 miles between major repair-work, 20th century engines routinely did 400,000 miles, which put them in the shop for an overhaul every year or so. Albuquerque’s rail yards completely dismantled locomotives, painstakingly cleaning each component, lathing wheels, manufacturing replacement equipment, patching and mending and then testing and inspecting the entire engine before sending it back out. A well-cared-for engine might last 15 years and, at the yard’s peak, about 40 were torn down and re-built each month.
Most of the rail yards buildings were constructed between 1914 and 1924, after the Santa Fe Railway had re-emerged as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, absorbed the A & P, and gained ownership of the site. By 1919, one-quarter of Albuquerque’s work force was employed at the yards and most of the city’s commerce owed its existence to the railroad. At present, there are 14 buildings extant, mostly clustered in the north; to the south is an operational turntable, built in 1915, which rotated trains as they entered and exited.
One of the unique things about the rail yards is its state of preservation; virtually every building built from 1916 onward remains, including flue (1920), boiler (1923), blacksmith (1917), and machine (1921) shops, an assembly hall (1922), a firehouse (1920), and a garage (pre-1931). The rail yard’s buildings were at the forefront of industrial architecture and technology and the towering 165,000 sq. ft./3.8 acre machine shop is considered in league with the 1922 Ford Motor Company Glass Plant in Michigan, putting it among the most historically important industrial buildings in the world. The machine shop’s two-story traveling cranes, one of which could hoist 250 tons, were incorporated into the structure of the building itself.
Following a steady decline through the Depression, the rail yards employed a record 1,500 workers during WWII, when the switch from steam to diesel engines was temporarily halted. By the mid-1950’s, construction of diesel engines had resumed and the site was mostly utilized for maintaining rail lines. When finally shut down in the 1990’s, most buildings were being used for nothing more than storage.
However, over the last few years there has been some activity at the rail yards beyond the graffiti artists and wayward photographers. The on-site WHEELS Museum has functioned as both a storehouse of historical items related to the yards and beyond and a community center of sorts for railroad aficionados. In part two, we’ll take a closer look at what’s going on at WHEELS. For now, if you'd like to know more about the rail yards redevelopment, the city's master plan process webpage is HERE.
John Mulhouse is an Albuquerque-based frequenter of gravel roads, ghost towns, and empty buildings. His blog, City of Dust, features photos and hidden history from all corners of New Mexico and beyond. He welcomes stories and suggestions for future visits.