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Get on board: Historians take readers through the turbulent times at ABQ’s locomotive repair shops

Book of the week

From about 1880 to 1955 – the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway’s steam locomotive repair shops were a dominant industrial presence and driving economic force in Albuquerque.

A comprehensive history of the shops is told in the recently published book “Overhaul: A Social History of the Albuquerque Locomotive Repair Shops” by Albuquerque-based husband-and-wife historians Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint.

The Flints chose the word “overhaul” for the title because that best describes the central nature of the work. The railroad’s steam locomotives often had to be “torn down and built back up,” Richard Flint said. “There were no replacement parts. They had to be fabricated from start to finish.”

During World War II, at the peak of its production, the Albuquerque repair shops ran three shifts a day and 2,000 employees turned out 40 to 42 overhauled steam locomotives a month, he said.

“It’s dangerous work and well-paid work. It’s noisy, it’s dirty, it’s greasy, it’s slippery. … There were a lot of routine injuries – mashed fingers, broken limbs, facial wounds from flying steel splinters,” he explained.

When the AT&SF first set up shop in Albuquerque, the area was largely a farming community. So the railroad brought in men to work in the shops who were already skilled machinists and boilermakers, Flint said.

For more than two generations, those skilled workers came from the eastern United States and Europe.

It took several decades for Hispanics and Native Americans to move up from low-skilled jobs as laborers and helpers to train for higher-paid technical jobs in the repair shops, Flint said. Several factors delayed the training of local Hispanics in those skilled jobs. One factor was “a pervasive anti-Hispanic bias in the U.S. railroad culture of the day,” according to the book. Another was a reported anti-Catholic attitude among non-Catholic railroad workers.

Yet another issue was territorial – “the virulence of attitudes on both sides” as seen in the animosity between residents of Old Albuquerque and New Albuquerque, Flint wrote.

The early years saw chronic friction – and occasional violence – between the skilled workers and local Hispanics, and also between the railroad and pueblo communities in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. One example cited by the authors is the AT&SF peremptorily setting up a station on Santo Domingo Pueblo, establishing its own town there and allowing settlers to occupy the Pueblo’s farmlands.

Flint writes that during much of the steam locomotive era, railroad repair shop jobs remained mostly closed to African Americans throughout the nation.

The Flints collaborated on the research, the writing and the planning of the book’s 72 illustrations. The couple had previously written scholarly works on subjects related to the Spanish Colonial period.

They credit a chance conversation with Leba Freed, the president of the Wheels Museum Inc., for inspiring them to write “Overhaul.” The museum is located on the grounds of the Albuquerque facility, one of four shops along the AT&SF rail line that maintained, repaired and overhauled steam locomotives.

The shops were integral to the railway’s – and the nation’s – rail transportation system before the rise of the diesel engine, according to a listing for the Albuquerque shops on the National Register of Historic Places.