If you’ve found yourself down in the Barelas Neighborhood recently and taken a stroll around the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (ATSF) Rail Yards, you might’ve peered through the chain link fence at the towering empty buildings and noticed a distinct lack of activity. Sure, there could’ve been a homeless man making his way across the tracks or some recent graffiti high above the street. A few pigeons probably fluttered overhead. But little else. However, not all is quiet at the yards. As I mentioned in my last post, there is, in fact, one tenant: WHEELS Museum, Inc. (Click images below to view full-size.)
WHEELS, an acronym for “We Have Everything Everyone Loves Spinning,” is located at 1100 2nd St. SW and, indeed, is a museum. Inside you’ll find many things that move, including an antique milk wagon rescued from someone’s backyard, horse drawn carts, and several old cars. But you’ll also find wheel-less items such as original Harvey Girl uniforms, vintage transportation signs, and even a small, hand-built plane hanging from the ceiling. Dozens and dozens of pictures, many capturing the rail yards and the men who worked them in their heyday, line the walls. All the items are donated and the phone is always ringing with requests that some obscure transportation device be given shelter in WHEELS.
WHEELS is also a major gathering place for Albuquerque’s model train enthusiasts. Scale models are set-up throughout the building and range from large and fairly detailed to massive and extraordinarily detailed. At any given time you can see the models being lovingly tended by their creators. Of course, from the outside, you would never know all this waited within the long, concrete building that is the museum’s home.
Housed in what was once a storage warehouse, freight building, and front office for the ATSF, WHEELS was established 20 years ago as a first step in preventing the destruction of the rail yard and to create a repository for historic railroad items. When the city was trying to buy the rail yards in 2007, WHEELS contributed 2 million dollars of their state-appropriated funds for a promise that they would have a home under any future development scheme and a vote on the advisory board. Under the plan now being put forward, the museum would be housed in a re-constructed roundhouse containing several public gathering and performance spaces. While the details of the development plan are batted back and forth and the bottom line is checked and checked again, WHEELS continues moving forward, now putting its time and money into bringing its current space up to code so that larger and more frequent events can be held.
However, WHEELS already has an illustrious list of past events to its credit, including an annual fundraising dinner and auction that this year featured Mayor Richard Berry and Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, among others. Every May, during National Train Day, WHEELS opens its doors to a couple thousand people that make their way down from the goings-on at Alvarado Transportation Center. Last fall, Los Angeles-based psychedelic band Spindrift performed an acoustic set at WHEELS on their Ghost Town Tour, during which they played shows in actual ghost towns and other places of historical importance to the West. But a study by the museum suggests that much more is possible, with the potential for upwards of a million people visiting yearly and vastly increased opportunities for economic development, education, and cultural activities.
So, if all this is happening, why hasn’t everyone in Albuquerque heard about the WHEELS Museum? The answer might be found both in WHEELS out-of-the-way and, let’s face it, somewhat imposing location, as well as the inescapable fact that the museum isn’t yet open to the public on a regular basis. Which isn’t to say that you can’t see the place for yourself and, if you have an interest in the rail yards, trains, or anything else that might move, even get involved.
Leba Freed, the President of WHEELS, estimates that there are about 20 regular volunteers who do everything from working on the aforementioned model trains to restoring incoming museum pieces to maintaining the building. In fact, literally everything at WHEELS is done by volunteers and the museum operates as a 501(c)( 3) organization. The museum is always seeking artifacts from New Mexico’s rich railroad history, as well as items that can be sold at one of their regular auctions, financial contributions, and the precious time of those that just want to help out. If you have a personal connection to the rail yards, WHEELS especially wants to hear from you. To get in touch, call Leba Freed at 505-243-6269 or e-mail leba4(at)aol(dot)com.
You’ll definitely want to contact Leba before visiting though, lest you find yourself banging on a large industrial metal door to no immediate avail. That can hurt, trust me.
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. More of his photography can be seen on Flickr.