ONE DECEMBER DAY IN 1920, Isadore Freed, a Russian émigré to New York and then Iowa, stepped off an Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway train at the Albuquerque depot. Behind him, the Alvarado Hotel complex displayed a handsome evocation of Mission Revival style. To his left, hundreds of men filled the many buildings of the Albuquerque Rail Yards with the noise, sparks, smoke, and sweat required to repair massive steam locomotives.

Freed had brought his family west upon becoming the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel, part of the “New Town” that had reoriented Albuquerque over the previous 40 years. By 1920 it easily eclipsed the former stronghold of Old Town, two miles northwest. Spurring the growth was a technology in dire need of brawny workers as it moved people and goods throughout the nation with futuristic efficiency. In what became Albuquerque’s downtown, restaurants, laundromats, stores, houses, saloons, brothels, a lumberyard, and a few new places of worship fanned out from the Rail Yards.

Rabbi Freed raised his hands to the sky. “Albuquerque is a special place on earth,” he proclaimed. “We must never leave here.”

The family stayed, and the city kept changing. By 1955, the railway’s notoriously finicky steam engines were waning, replaced by ten times as many diesel ones. Fewer workers were hired. In 1970, the ATSF closed the Alvarado, once a jewel of the Fred Harvey empire. Preservationists mounted a last-ditch campaign to save it. A month later, a wrecking ball crushed their hopes.

The untouched machine shop remains at the Albuquerque Rail Yards.

On January 20, 1977, the railway told workers this was their last day. But those workers had seen the industry survive bankruptcies, strikes, fires, and floods. Surely this wasn’t the end, they thought. Doubters showed up the next morning, dressed for work. They found the gates locked, the buildings silent.

Since then, the bright promise of the Albuquerque Rail Yards has dimmed. Its buildings, once a soaring tribute to Industrial Age steel, concrete, and glass, drew vagrants and vandals, a succession of stalled development plans, and environmental threats that ate money as fast as steam engines once consumed coal. Still, hope for a better fate flickered.

“This is the epicenter of New Mexico, of our history, our work, and our lives,” says Leba Freed, the rabbi’s granddaughter. “There’s awe in this architecture. It’s been called ‘the Notre Dame of Albuquerque.’ It will again become a major attraction.”

From the Wheels Museum, which Freed leads in a former storehouse on the site, to the farmers’ and makers’ markets that have blossomed in the old blacksmith shop, along with the growing appeal of the grungiest nooks to filmmakers, the yards have finally arrived at a turning point. A daunting list of chores remain, but if you carry any skepticism to Lawrence Rael, the city’s chief operations officer, he will lay out a vow as unyielding as iron: “This will not be our generation’s Alvarado.”

From left: The flue shop has been renovated. Take a look inside the machine shop.

FROM A WALKWAY OUTSIDE of Wheels (an acronym for We Have Everything Everyone Loves Spinning), visitors can see some of what has been lost. The faint outline of an enormous roundhouse marks the grounds to the east. At the yards’ height, it held 35 bays for working on engines and cars. Since the roundhouse’s demolition in 1986, the site has defied dreams of turning it into apartments, a hotel, even parking for a soccer stadium. Its loss still angers Freed, who wants the majority of the site to celebrate workers, history, and technology.

Inside the museum, she proudly shows visitors treasures like the huge ATSF chalkboard, still hand-printed with work assignments from that final day in 1977. (A supporter had plucked it from the trash.) Other gems of her all-volunteer nonprofit include place settings from the Alvarado Hotel, a military turntable for playing records, vintage vehicles, and enough sets of miniature railroads to impress Casey Jones.

The narrow building doesn’t lend itself to proper museum displays, but rewards wanderers who like to nerd out on the past. Freed began collecting artifacts 26 years ago, storing them in various warehouses as well as her family’s onetime import business, the Freed Company, downtown.

Many of the donations come courtesy of fed-up wives, she says, pointing to a seven-foot-tall set of wheels for a band saw that can cut a railroad tie.

“A man saw it for sale,” she says, “brought it home, and showed it to his wife, who called us to ask, ‘Can you take this off my hands?’ We get a lot of that.”

She envisions moving into a larger space on the site—a commitment the city is not prepared to make—to teach more people about how trains changed the pulse of the city and the lives of its residents. That’s one of the themes in Overhaul: A Social History of the Albuquerque Locomotive Repair Shops, a book by historians Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint that the University of New Mexico Press published last year.

Because of the nearly constant need to tinker with steam locomotives, the ATSF built yards at numerous points along the track—Ratón, Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Belén, Tucumcari, Clovis, Deming, Roswell, Vaughn, and Gallup among them—but still required one enormous yard for overhauls. Albuquerque wasn’t an early contender for it. Bernalillo and Belén looked more attractive, but high land prices drove the managers away. Old Town’s proximity to the Río Grande carried a flood threat that gave the ATSF pause. On top of that, merchants feared trains would put horse-and-buggy shops out of business, so they weren’t inclined to welcome the tracks.

Vintage cars are seen through a beyond-vintage window.

Town leaders like William Hazeldine and Franz Huning knew that trains could move the city forward, so they began buying up small farms tended by Hispanos in the future Rail Yards site. Within months, a full-blown industry had landed. Early workers were shipped in from other states and even Europe to rev up the process. Skilled labor mattered. It sometimes took years of interning before local workers qualified for better-paying jobs. For decades, Black workers could get hired only as porters.

Spur industries benefited, primarily the American Lumber Co. and the coal mines of Madrid. In the immediately surrounding neighborhoods of Barelas, South Broadway, and San José, women turned their front yards into makeshift luncheonettes, selling tortillas, beans, and coffee to the workers.

“Hispanic workers coming off the land and helping to transfer the economy was huge,” Shirley Cushing Flint says. “It changed their lives radically.”

“In one generation or so,” her husband adds, “you have members of these families going into college. It transformed them into professional people.”

Cecilia Navarrete is one of them. Her grandfather brought his wife and children north from La Barca, a city in the Jalisco state of Mexico, in 1907. He settled on the east side of the tracks, near San José, in a sliver of neighborhood unofficially dubbed La Barcacita. He and his sons found work in the yards, purchased homes, and opened a grocery.

Read more: The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad kept chugging through the pandemic and introduced a newly renovated locomotive plus five retooled passenger cars.

Navarrete, who grew up in the shadow of the yards, went on to earn a doctorate at Stanford and logged a successful career designing and evaluating educational programs. Upon retirement, she began a family genealogical project that soon grew into a far larger demographic study of the yards from 1880 to 1950.

Combing records amassed by Wheels volunteer Bill Brown, she found workers from age seven to 84 in jobs that ranged from what she calls “schlepper” to accountant, mail detective, carpenter, stenciler, blacksmith, brakeman, stenographer, and hotel clerk—five columns of single-spaced job titles in all. “These people are the backbone of this city,” she says. “They moved it forward, technologically and mechanically. They were used to hard work. And they were loyal. The majority ended up staying decades.”

The change even helped make the city a locus of modern art, says Andrew Connors, director of the Albuquerque Museum. “The railroad made getting to New Mexico easier for artists and brought in so many materials that living here didn’t seem such a hardship,” he says. “The railway bosses, based mostly in Chicago, were so eager to promote easy access to this region that they sponsored artists to move here.”

Beyond that, he notes, the yards asserted to the nation that Albuquerque was neither primitive nor the middle of nowhere. “These buildings were some of the most technologically advanced structures west of the Mississippi,” he says. “They were on a par with those anywhere in the United States in their time.”

Weathered architecture serves as a backdrop to the artists and food trucks at the Holiday Market.

IN 1995, THE ATSF MERGED with Burlington Northern. The combined BNSF Railway has some workers in its portion of the yards. Amtrak and Rail Runner trains cruise past daily. In 2007, the City of Albuquerque pooled $8.5 million of city and state money to purchase the majority of the yards—including most of its buildings and all of their problems.

Creating a plaza and parking area in front of the blacksmith shop alone required removing 11,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil. Floors in the boiler and machine shops had been “paved” with creosote-coated blocks that had absorbed additional quantities of hazardous fluids. The largest building, the 187,000-square-foot machine shop, could house a manufacturing facility but can’t be used as anything more than a moody Better Call Saul set until its roof is replaced, at
an estimated cost of $10 million.

New roofs now top the lofty ceiling braces in the boiler and tender repair shops, which also hold cranes capable of lifting up to 15 tons. The old flue shop has been transformed into an office still awaiting a tenant. Interest exists: A film studio has rented the yards for most of 2022, while allowing the Rail Yards Market to carry on every Sunday from May to October. The city has talked with Central New Mexico Community College about establishing a film program at the yards. The site has been rented for weddings, proms, and other special events. In late 2021, workers began developing a walking route from downtown to the site that will include landscaping and benches.

The scale of the Rail Yards can be seen against the downtown skyline.

Other progress has been slowed by various asbestos and lead-paint challenges, and the city hopes to persuade the State Historic Preservation Office to overlook a key non-historic detail. Many of the buildings’ walls feature huge sweeps of windowpanes, some 55,000 panes in all, that originally held clear glass. Over the years, as glass broke, workers replaced them with plexiglass in a range of colors that now conjure the feel of a cathedral. Restoring their original look, Lawrence Rael says, could invite a public backlash.

“There’s a fine line to walk with historic preservation,” he says.

He considers the problem while walking between the blacksmith shop/farmers’ market and the flue shop, a strip so narrow that the buildings’ walls seem to reach far beyond their true height. “It feels you’re in Manhattan here,” he says with a laugh, before stepping inside the blacksmith shop.

Weeks earlier, it had drawn thousands of selfie-snapping shoppers to the annual Holiday Market for two days of food trucks, artisans, and live music both inside the building and throughout the plaza. Shea Lindner displayed his Schizoid Guru laser-cut jewelry, grateful for a way to connect with buyers as the pandemic lingered. “I show at other markets, but the Rail Yards one is great for tourist traffic,” he said. “Also, the space is just really fun. Every time I’m here I think about history.”

Rael ponders it, too, especially when skeptics regard the yards as a pricey barnacle. “I’m pretty proud we were able to get the north end of the site in this shape in just three and a half years,” he says as a setting sun turns the blue and green plexi-panes into a funky brand of stained glass. “If we have enough money to stabilize the machine shop and its roof, then we’re within a couple of years of reopening that. This is part of the history of the city. We want to preserve it as a source of pride and value to the community—and one that will also create economic opportunities.”

Reminded yet again of the enormity of those tasks, Rael pauses and then allows a slight smile, one worthy of the Cheshire Cat, to grace his face. “How do you eat an elephant?” he asks.

Leba Freed stands inside the Wheels Museum.

Making Tracks

Visit the Wheels Museum Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 1100 Second St. SW; 505-243-6269.

Local growers and producers sell their wares at the Rail Yards Market on Sundays, May through October, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 777 First St. SW; 505-600-1109.