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Albuquerque Transportation History

U.S. Territorial Period, 1846-1912

When Mexico ceded New Mexico to the United States in 1846, the Santa Fe Trail linked the United States with its new territory. The government built a string of forts to protect the trail, including Fort Union in 1851 in northeastern New Mexico.

Traffic on the trail increased. An indication of volume is the record in 1858 of 1,827 wagons carrying $3.5 million in goods – including housewares, drugs, groceries, whiskey, hardware and ammunition. In time freight included furniture, musical instruments and heavy machinery.

Beginning in 1849 with the first stage line, the trail also hauled passengers, bumping along in stagecoaches. Fare from Kansas City to Santa Fe cost about $200 and included 40 pounds of baggage and two blankets. The trip took two, bone-jarring weeks.

More Albuquerque History

When the railroad chugged into Albuquerque in 1880, El Camino and the Santa Fe Trail became obsolete.

The railroad didn’t exactly run through Albuquerque. Tracks were laid east of town to accommodate north-south track alignment and to avoid washouts when the Rio Grande flooded. On April 10, 1880, the tracks gained Albuquerque and on the 15th a freight train pulled in, without fanfare. On April 22nd a trainload of dignitaries arrived from Santa Fe, which occasioned parades, music by the Ninth Cavalry Band, speeches and fireworks.

The railroad spawned a second town, as stores and saloons sprouted along the tracks in tents and quickly built shacks. In time the new commercial district gained permanent structures of brick and brownstone. It was known as New Town, and the original community became Old Town.

For some time the depot was a boxcar set on pilings. Construction began on the depot and railroad complex in 1901. By then work had started on the Alvarado Hotel. Completed in 1902 at a cost of $200,000, it was considered the finest railroad hotel of its time.

The railroad brought goods in quantity that freighters had previously hauled on wagons and mule trains. It also brought newcomers. Before the railroad, Albuquerque’s population was largely Hispanic with a sprinkling of Anglos. By 1885, the town counted more than 20 ethnic groups, including African-Americans, Chinese and Italians who were building the line.

With accessible transportation, the town’s economy changed dramatically. Albuquerque became a shipping point for livestock and wool, and the lumber industry boomed. In the early 1900s, American Lumber Co. was second only to the railroad as Albuquerque’s largest employer. Its 110-acre complex was built between 1903 and 1905 near Twelfth Street. That’s how the Sawmill Neighborhood got its name. At its peak it employed 850 men and produced milled lumber, doors and shingles.

Because Old Town had housing and New Town had jobs, a trolley system linked the two. The Street Railway Co. began running mule-drawn trolley cars along Railroad Avenue (Central) from the train station to Old Town. In 1904 Albuquerque got its first electric street cars, which operated until Dec. 31, 1927. The next morning they were replaced by a fleet of five buses with eight miles of routes.

In 1891, when Albuquerque incorporated as a city, it had 5 miles of graded streets and 9 miles of sidewalks. It wouldn’t be long until the first automobiles were driving over city streets. In November 1900 R.L. Dodson bought a “Locomobile” in Denver and drove it to Albuquerque. It was the first car in the city.

In 1900 Louis Galles, who had come to New Mexico as a soldier in the Indian wars, bought another automobile. In 1908 he started the city’s first car dealership, Galles Motor Co. As cars began to proliferate, the municipal council that year set Albuquerque’s first speed limit for automobiles of 8 miles an hour.

U.S. Statehood Transportation & Communication, 1912-1945

In 1914 the Santa Fe Railway began building its Albuquerque shops south of New Town, along with the 75-stall roundhouse, the railroad’s largest. For many years the railroad was the city’s largest employer. In 1940 the Santa Fe Railway’s roundhouse and shops had more than 1,700 workers. A steam whistle on the 240-foot smokestack blew at 7:30 a.m. to start the work day and again at noon for lunch. At 4 p.m. it signaled quitting time.

By 1915 work was underway on the transcontinental highway system called the National Old Trails Highway. That year New Mexico had 4,250 cars and 92 dealers. New Mexicans, along with other Americans, continued to press for better roads and by 1926 the demand for standardized highways produced Route 66, which stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles and passed through Albuquerque.

Initially Route 66 made an S-curve through New Mexico and followed existing roads. Entering New Mexico at Tucumcari, it turned north at Santa Rosa to Santa Fe, using a portion of the old Santa Fe Trail. From Santa Fe it curved south to Los Lunas over the old El Camino before continuing west to Gallup. In Albuquerque Route 66 originally passed down Fourth Street, which was also a segment of the Camino Real. In 1937 the route was realigned to straighten out the curve, and the new alignment was east to west along Central Avenue. That same year Route 66 was paved.

By then the first tourist services had sprouted along the highway. In 1935 Albuquerque had 16 tourist camps on Fourth Street and three on Central. After the realignment, new clusters of motels and curio shops appeared. The oldest Route 66 motels are the Aztec Motel at 3821 Central NE, opened in 1932; the Town Lodge at 4101 Central NE, in 1935; the El Vado, west of Old Town, in 1937; and the De Anza Motor Lodge, in 1939.

Commercial aviation got its start in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. Inspired by the feat two railroad workers, Frank Speakman and W. Langford Franklin, leased 140 acres on the East Mesa, bought a tractor and in 1928 graded two runways on East Mesa. Mayor Clyde Tingley also loaned them city equipment after hours. Entrepreneur James Oxnard bought Franklin’s interest and expanded the facility, which they named it Oxnard Field.

In 1929 Western Air Express set up ticket offices at the Franciscan Hotel. Its first flight, on May 15, 1929, included Tingley and contractor Charles Lembke. Trans-Continental Air Transport became the second commercial air service here on July 18. TAT literally put Albuquerque on the map when the city became a stop on the first coast-to-coast transportation route using airplanes and trains. Airplanes then didn’t fly at night, so Transcontinental Air Transport service paired with railroads. For the two-day trip from New York to Los Angeles, passengers flew during the day and traveled by train at night. TAT became TWA.

In 1939 the municipal airport opened, one of many projects in the city funded by the Works Progress Administration. Dubbed the Eagle’s Nest, it was built of adobe.

Transportation and Communication, 1945-now

In 1956 the government launched the Federal Interstate Highway system. By 1966 I-25 and 1-40 were completed through Albuquerque. The interchange, dubbed the Big-I, was originally designed for 60,000 vehicles. By the new millennium and after years of vigorous growth, Albuquerque had outgrown its interchange.

In 2002 the city completed a two-year, $291 million reconstruction of the Big I ahead of schedule and on budget. It was the biggest public works project in New Mexico history and one of the nation’s 10 biggest highway projects that year. And it made another record as the world’s fastest construction of a major interchange still supporting traffic.

The Big-I now has a designed capacity of 400,000 vehicles a day. The system has 111 lane miles of pavement, including a new system of frontage roads, up from 17 lane miles originally. Work continues on additional improvements to I-25 and I-40.

Also in 2002 the $8 million Alvarado Transportation Center opened downtown to serve Amtrak and Greyhound Bus passengers. The center is built in the Spanish mission style of the city’s former landmark, the Alvarado Hotel.

Route 66, El Camino and the Santa Fe Trail are hardly forgotten. Even though Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985 after the last segment of I-40 had bypassed it, Route 66, and El Camino became U.S. 85, today both roads are part of the National Scenic and Historic Byway system. The state boasts six long, paved segments of Route 66 that are accessible from Interstates 40 and 25. Two of the segments are through Albuquerque. I-25 parallels El Camino, which is still the oldest European road in North America.

Traces of the Santa Fe Trail can still be seen in northeastern New Mexico and near Fort Union. History buffs spend their vacations visiting sites along the trail and even have their own organization, the Santa Fe Trail Association. Congress declared the trail a National Historic Trail in 1987. Traces of El Camino are also visible.

Air Transportation
Albuquerque International Sunport, built in 1965, is one of the best-loved airports among travelers, both for its handsome regional architecture and its unique, permanent art collection. Even the car-rental facility, opened in 2001, has its own art collection. Pilots consider Albuquerque a safe and easy place to land because the Sunport has four runways, more than most cities, and enjoys a good relationship with Kirtland Air Force Base, which handles all fire and rescue.

The Sunport has a U.S. Port of Entry with its own customs facility, so that exporters can ship freight directly and pay duties locally.

In 2005 the city will complete a third concourse and a federal inspections station, which will allow visitors from foreign countries to land, pass through customs, agricultural inspections and immigration – all in the same area. And the city is preparing a foreign trade zone on 60 acres near the air cargo center.

On Albuquerque’s West Side is Double Eagle II Airport, named for the balloon piloted by Albuquerque balloonists Maxie Anderson, Ben Abruzzo and Larry Newman in their historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1978. The Double Eagle is a general aviation facility that’s slated to become the epicenter of the city’s budding aerospace manufacturing cluster.

Rail Service
In the 1950s, the railroad began using diesel fuel instead of coal, and passengers began to do more driving. Air travel gained popularity. The railroad closed its shops in the 1970s and, sadly, tore down the Alvarado Hotel. The depot burned in 1993. However, 17 original buildings remain, and there are plans for the Wheels Museum on the site and possibly a digital production studio.

After several mergers in the 1990s, the Santa Fe Railway became the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., which operates more than 1,000 trains across a 33,500-mile rail system in 28 states. Albuquerque is a stop on Amtrak’s Chicago-to-Los Angeles route.

The state plans a commuter rail system from Belen to Santa Fe, with the first link from Belen to Bernalillo to begin in 2005.

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Do you have a few hours each month to help the Wheels Museum? Volunteers are needed so the Museum can be open more; run the model railroad trains, also help needed with events, marketing, fund raising. Call Leba Freed at (505) 243-6269.

Saturday, September 30 and Sunday October 1, 2023. One of the nation’s largest operating steam locomotives, former Santa Fe 2926, will be on the move and park next to the Albuquerque Rail Yards on Saturday, September 30 through Sunday, October 1. WHEELS will have a booth at the site. Please come and visit us. For more information go to: www.2926.us

Saturday, October 21 2-4 pm. “The Great Wheels Museum Train Robbery!” Dr. Ronald Lah of the Wheels Museum with a group of local history reenactors will present the program. It will include:
Screening with discussion of the 1903 film, “The Great Train Robbery,” and the “Lawmen Train Cars” that were developed for rapid deployment after a robbery.

Discussion of the historic Socorro and San Marcia, New Mexico train robberies, and the accuracy of train robbery depictions in movies like “Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid.”

Reenactment of an Old West train robbery staged in and around the Wheels Museum’s train coach car.

Donors to the Wheels Museum Fundraiser are encouraged to take a seat in the train coach and present your donation when the "Train Robbers" go through the car. Visitors are encouraged to wear some period style Old West apparel like bowler and feathered hats and bonnets, pin-stipes, vests, and boots.

Only non-functional firearm props will be used in the re-enactment. Admission is Free: Donations gratefully accepted. Phone: (505) 243-6269 to RSVP.

Saturday, October 28, 2-4 pm. Headset Dance Party. Dance wearing headsets to a great variety of musical choices. Admission Free, but donations are gratefully accepted.

Saturday, November 4, 11 am. “A History of Albuquerque Comedy or How I Got My Kicks on
Route 66.”
Ronn Perea. Ron's presentation will give you a unique insight into a part of Albuquerque
Culture and we promise you that you will laugh out loud throughout his talk. Admission is Free: Donations gratefully accepted. Phone: (505) 243-6269 to RSVP.

Saturday, November 4, 2 pm. "Albuquerque History Challenge: Education and Fun" Roland Pentilla is an Albuquerque historian who frequently conducts downtown walking tours on behalf of the
Albuquerque Historical Society and Historic Albuquerque, Inc. Come to experience our own “Jeopardy” version of Albuquerque history complete with raffle prizes for the correct answers. Admission is Free: Donations gratefully accepted. Phone: (505) 243-6269 to RSVP.

Saturday, November 25, 10 am. “Walter steps up to the plate”. Author Sue Houser discusses her book about twelve-year-old Walter wants to spend the summer of 1927 watching his beloved Chicago Cubs play baseball. Instead,Walter must leave everything he knows and loves to accompany his mother to Albuquerque, New Mexico, a place he has never been to live with relatives he has never met. Admission is Free: Donations gratefully accepted. Phone: (505) 243-6269 to RSVP.

Railyard Worker Commemorative Plaques. Honor a loved one who worked on the railroad, honor a WHEELS volunteer or honor the WHEELS Museum. WHEELS is now selling plaques with name plates for $100.00 per name.  Keep the memory of these people alive in perpetuity with a gorgeous wooden plaque with brass name plate. Thank those who made our city and state successful, built the railroad, continue to work to preserve our history and create our future. The plaques will be displayed in the Community Room at WHEELS.

Contact Paulette Miller Weir who is graciously supporting the project and has volunteered to orchestrate this work. Her phone number is (505) 227-3270.  Please send checks for $100.00 per name and a few other words such as dates of birth or death or job held to WHEELS Museum, PO Box 95438 Albuquerque, NM 97199 or contact Ms. Miller Weir for any questions.  We can also accept credit cars payment by calling WHEELS-6269.