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When the railroad was king

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

It’s the holiday season, when Christmas trees suddenly sprout from living room floors, many with model trains circling colorfully wrapped boxes of presents – some perhaps containing a new train set or a coveted railcar.

Whether it’s a Lionel or a Lego, Bachmann or Bowser, kids and adults still love trains.

The folks at Albuquerque’s Wheels Museum are particularly fond of Budd trains this holiday season, after being given a completely restored, 85-foot-long private railcar made in 1952 by the Budd metal manufacturing company of Philadelphia.

From the 1930s until 1987, Budd was a leading manufacturer of streamlined stainless steel passenger railcars.

The railcar, named Silver Iris, is valued at about $500,000, making it the most expensive artifact ever donated to the Wheels Museum, said museum President Leba Freed.

“Of course, we’re thrilled to have received such a generous gift,” she said. “The American Association of Private Railcar Owners had a convention in Albuquerque in September, and one of the private railcar owners, Mark Bing, a retired doctor from Katy, Texas, loved the Wheels Museum and loved Albuquerque and offered the donation at that time.”

Bing and his family had been looking at museums around the country to find a suitable home for the railcar, she said.

He used the Silver Iris “to take his family on excursions for many years,” Freed said. “The car was attached to Amtrak trains, and they traveled all over the country.”

The Silver Iris was formally presented to the museum in November, after the Bing family traveled aboard the railcar to Albuquerque. It is parked on a siding in the Rail Runner yard, north of the museum, but Freed said the plan is to eventually park it on a siding next to the museum, at 1100 Second SW.

Walking through the railcar is to experience the twilight of the golden years of rail travel. By 1952, when the Silver Iris was made, airlines had become a serious challenge to rail travel, but traces of rail’s elegance could still be felt.

The railcar has eight private sitting areas, some of which can be doubled in size by folding back a separating wall. Each sitting area converts to a bedroom, as seats fold down or combine.

A bathroom with a toilet, sink, mirror and shelves is contained within each sitting space. The railcar also has two shower areas, a kitchen and a lounge that also includes four pull-down beds.

The light fixtures, gauges, switches and ashtrays are original, as is the furniture, which has been reupholstered in burgundy and blue fabrics.

Throughout the railcar are wood-framed drawings of trains, locomotives and railcars, a nod to the history of train travel in America.

The Silver Iris is also a nod to the prominent place that rail travel occupies in the history of Albuquerque, Freed said.

She noted that the hub of Albuquerque used to be what is now the Old Town area. When the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway reached Albuquerque in 1880, east of the Old Town area, the city center slowly started to shift to the east, around the rail yards.

In the following decades, much of the material and human labor required for Albuquerque’s continuous growth arrived on the railroad.

“Trains brought the people and resources that fueled the expansion of the city,” she said.

“At any given time, up to 2,000 people worked at the rail yards during the heyday of the railroad. So this is a rail city,” Freed said.

The Wheels Museum is packed into the 21,000-square-foot old Storehouse building on the site of the historic Santa Fe rail yards in Downtown Albuquerque. Built in 1914, the building at one time contained an inventory of more than 30,000 railroad parts and was later used as a depot for motor freight, Freed said.

Today, the building houses thousands of artifacts, many of them related to the operation of the railroad, but also items that help chronicle the history of all things that move.

“This gift of the Silver Iris railcar is not only a symbol of generosity toward the Wheels Museum and the city of Albuquerque, but it comes with the understanding that we will be able to use this to capitalize on the history, culture and economic development for the city.”

In the long term, the railcar may be used for excursions, she said. In the near term, people will be able to walk through on guided tours. There are possibilities for catered dinners aboard the car and bed-and-breakfast opportunities.

“It’s all part of fulfilling the museum’s mission of saving the history of the golden age of rail and educating people about the history of transportation in Albuquerque,” Freed said.

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