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Behind the tracks: New Mexico History Museum looks at the people working on the railroad

Crews prepare the Santa Fe Central Railway track in New Mexico in 1903. (C.G. Kaadt, copyright 1903/ Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — They moved the dirt, carried the rails, pounded the spikes, shoveled the coal, and through many decades kept the railroads operating.

They are the workers behind the scenes in the railroad industry, and a new exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe will honor them. The “Working on the Railroad” exhibit opens Friday, Oct. 18. It will be open until sometime in 2021.

Alicia Romero, curator of Spanish Colonial, Mexican and Chicano/a history at the museum, said the idea sprung from an earlier exhibit on train engines.

“I thought it would be interesting to talk instead about the people actually involved in the railroading industry, ” she said. “I felt that these workers – all workers – deserved attention and praise for their skill and sacrifice. I don’t think most people consider how dangerous this job was and continues to be.”

The exhibit will feature 40 images from the Palace of the Governors archives and the Library of Congress. The images span from 1880 to 1971 and include cooks, conductors, oilers and operators, as well as workers who repaired the tracks and cleaned out the boxcars. Romero said the workers in New Mexico were from many different backgrounds and included Native Americans, African Americans and Chinese immigrants.

Historian Fred Friedman led the state’s railroad bureau for 30 years and was a consultant for the exhibit. Friedman said that the railroad became a way of life for many New Mexicans and that it wasn’t unusual to see three generations employed at the same time. He said that when it comes to the railroads, many think about the legacy of Fred Harvey, who set the bar for hospitality and built souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels along the railroad line. But, Friedman said, it was the back-breaking work of those behind the scenes that made it all possible.

“They were the wind beneath Fred Harvey’s wings,” he said. “They had to be able to handle wind, extreme hot, and cold.”

Since its emergence in the 1860s, the railroad played an important roll in the lives of Americans. The automobile, interstate system and trucking industry have led to its decline, but for almost a century, the railroad provided the majority of jobs for communities along its route, including in New Mexico.

The railroad came to the state in late 1878, reaching Albuquerque in 1880. Shortly after that, the Santa Fe Railway Shops sprang up from a dirt-covered field in the middle of the Barelas neighborhood. Friedman said the shops employed welders, machinists, boiler makers, mechanics, carpenters, painters and more who were responsible for overhauling and repairing the locomotives.

A group of New Mexico railroad workers around 1900. (Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives)

The city of Albuquerque’s Neighborhoods at a Crossroad documentary series sheds light on the impact of railway shops in Albuquerque, saying they transformed Barelas from a farming area to blue-collar neighborhood. The shops employed 1,500 people at its height, making them the city’s largest employer. One of those employees was Frank Archibeque, who went to work there in 1942 at age 16. His son, Clyde Archibeque, said his father joined the Navy less than a year later and served in World War II. He returned to the shops in 1946 as an apprentice machinist and worked there until his retirement in 1988.

Clyde Archibeque said his family timed its daily activities – waking and eating lunch and dinner – by the shops’ whistle, which blew at the start of the day, at midday and in the evening.

“Our dear mother, Cecilia, almost every school day woke us up with the following greeting,” Clyde Archibeque said. “‘Levantanten niños. Se toco el pito del shops. (Wake up children. The shops’ whistle blew).’ ”

Photos of Archibeque and several other workers are permanently on display at the Wheels Museum, in the now-closed railway shops. The Archibeque siblings – Clyde, his brother Frank and sister Julia – worked with Romero to tell their father’s story in the “Working on the Railroad” exhibit.

Among the groups that found employment in the rail industry were local tribes, including those from Laguna Pueblo, just west of Albuquerque. Legend has it that a tribal leader with the pueblo came out to intercept the owners as they began to lay tracks across their land. Laguna Pueblo member Thelma Antonio has chronicled the encounter and its impact.

“They were just going to build it without consultation from us,” Antonio said. “We put a stop to it, and there was an unwritten agreement. The governor (of the pueblo) at that time asked in negotiations for jobs for Laguna people.”

Although she did not work specifically with the coming exhibit, Antonio’s research is part of the narrative of New Mexico railroad workers.

The men from the pueblo not only helped lay the track, but they became involved in its maintenance from Albuquerque to the rail’s end in California. As a result, communities of Laguna people, that came to be known as Laguna Colonies, sprung up in Gallup, Winslow, Arizona, and Barstow and Richmond, California. Antonio’s grandfather lived in the Gallup colony, and her uncle lived in the Barstow colony. The railroad gave the Native workers boxcars to live in, which they set up near the tracks, and provided coal, firewood and water.

“The towns had housing, but they chose to stay together,” she said. “They were used to living in places without water. Most villages did not have plumbing.”

Children born in those colonies, including Antonio’s husband and his siblings, are known as boxcar kids. Antonio said that the boxcar homes are gone but that many of the workers still live in the colonies. Antonio received a grant to continue her work reviewing documents and interviewing family and tribal members. She hopes to someday turn her research into a book, a short film and an exhibit of her own.

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