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Keeping the trains running

Almeta Williams, employed in the AT&SF Railroad yard in Clovis to clean out potash cars, March 1943. (Jack Delano/Library of Congress)

Don’t expect to see lots of pictures of trains at “Working on the Railroad,” the new exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum that opened Friday, Oct. 18.

The 40 black-and-white photographs featured in the show are dedicated to the men and women whose labor kept the trains running in New Mexico for nearly a century. The images, on display in the Mezzanine Gallery of the museum near the Fred Harvey installation, depict workers often underrepresented in railroad history and span the years from 1879 to 1971.

“Here in New Mexico, the railroad was such an important part of modernization. Its influence was everywhere. We have millions of images in our archives and there are many beautiful, small museums dedicated to the rails throughout the state, like the ones in Vaughn and Raton,” said Alicia Romero, curator at the history museum. “But I wanted to do something different.”

Romero said she consulted with the museum’s retired photo curator, Daniel Kosharek, who put Romero in touch with historian Fred Friedman, who led the state’s railroad bureau for 30 years. The goal: To tell “stories we haven’t seen,” she said.

An unidentified group of railroad workers in New Mexico circa 1900. (Courtesy of Palace of the Governors Archives)

To do that, the history museum used photographs from its archives, as well as some from the Library of Congress taken by Jack Delano as he rode the rails through New Mexico in 1943. Delano’s images, which Romero had blown up to 17 inches by 15 inches, capture the African Americans, Hispanics, women, Natives and immigrants who kept the trains running shortly after the U.S. entered World War II.

One of Delano’s photos on display depicts Almeta Williams, an African American woman employed in the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad yard in Clovis to clean out potash cars. She projects grace and beauty in her work clothes, which include a heavy zippered coat, a cap, goggles, a bandanna and gloves, at the same time emanating a sense of world-weariness.

During the time of Delano’s trip, the rails were essential to moving troops from military training facilities to ports on the East and West coasts, where they would head by ship to battlefronts in Europe and the Far East. Everyone was expected to pitch in for the war effort and railroad workers were no exception.

To bring the gritty lives of its subjects to life, “Working on the Railroad” also includes lanterns, tie-dating nails, giant wrenches and other objects.

Repair work at the AT&SF Railroad shops in Albuquerque, 1971. (Jim Kubie/Palace of the Governors Photo Archives)

Most New Mexicans are familiar with railroad ties because they have been a common feature of landscaping, Romero notes, but visitors will be surprised by the 250 different kinds of nails used to date the installation of the ties collected by Homer Ruley, who worked for AT&SF for 40 years. These objects are part of the New Mexico History Museum’s vast collection and are usually stored either in the museum’s basements or at off-site storage facilities, Romero said.

Accompanying the exhibit of photographs and implements will be a video loop from ¡COLORES!, a production of New Mexico PBS/KNME-TV, that documents the decline of the railroad shops in the Barelas neighborhood of Albuquerque during the 1970s.

“With ‘Working on the Railroad,’ we’re trying to give voice to people who were often overlooked,” Romero said in an interview. “To some people, these stories may not seem glamorous, but they are still valuable.”

The exhibit is a fitting complement to the adjacent installation commemorating the Harvey House hospitality empire that served travelers on the AT&SF and other rail lines, Romero said. It will remain on display until October 18, 2021.

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