by Aurelio Sanchez – Journal Staff Writer
Like the Little Engine That Could, Leba Freed is a metaphor for optimism, hard work and relentless dedication in her longtime efforts to preserve an important Albuquerque landmark.
As in the popular children’s tale about the little engine, it might have seemed to Freed a daunting mountain to climb 15 years ago to try to save the deteriorating old railroad shops and yards in Downtown Albuquerque.
Owned then by Burlington Railroad, the 27-acre yards with 350,000 square feet of buildings had become a haven for homeless people and wild dogs.
But now with the special Wheels Gala grand opening of the Wheels Museum Warehouse on Sept. 26, momentum is gaining for establishment of the Wheels Museum, envisioned as a world-class transportation museum in Albuquerque.
With the event, Freed and her volunteer nonprofit organization can perhaps ease off the throttle a bit to enjoy and appreciate their efforts to save and redevelop the steam locomotive repair shops, built in 1914 by the Santa Fe Railway.
From the Freed family’s longtime business on south First Street, Freed witnessed the demolition by the railroad of the city’s grand dame, the Alvarado Hotel, in the 1970s. When it seemed the old rail yards were destined for the same fate, she began to marshal forces, started fundraising and seeking grants, and recruited volunteers, including influential backers like Mayor Martin Chávez.
It paid off in 2007 when the city bought the site for $8.5 million, with plans to develop a museum documenting the coming of the railroad and its continuing legacy in the history and economy of Albuquerque and New Mexico.
“These railroad shops became the centerpiece of the development of our city,” Freed said. “Not only were they greatly loved by the people of this city, but they have great potential for saving the culture and history for times to come.”
Freed said her family has had a great love of the trains and the railroad ever since her grandfather arrived in 1920 from Iowa.
“When he came, he said it was December and the weather was beautiful,” Freed said. “He lifted his hands to heaven and said that Albuquerque was a special paradise on Earth, and that we must never leave.
“Freed said her enthusiasm is shared by almost everyone she meets and talks to about the project.
She points out that the rail yards at one point were the largest steam locomotive repair shops between Chicago and Los Angeles, when Santa Fe Railway owned them.
“At that time, one in four people, 25 percent of the people here, worked at the yards,” Freed said. “They came from all over the country to help make Albuquerque
into a city.
“I, of course, loved the architecture of the buildings and their history, but I also loved the knowledge that so many men worked so hard, up to 14-hour days, building a dream here,” she said. “It was a magnificent time for industry and development.”
Now the task is to commemorate the achievements and plot out a new track to aid in the city’s future course.
The Wheels Museum can be an important engine for that job, she said, by becoming an attraction for tourists, but also by providing needed services for local residents.
Plans call for it to provide a fun and exciting place to shop, enjoy a concert or dinner, but most important, as a place where New Mexicans can be reminded about a special part of their heritage.
The next stop is the Wheels Gala, the grand opening of the Wheels Museum Warehouse. The event features a silent and a live auction of railroad and other items, hors d’oeuvres, dinner catered by The Cooperage and western swing dance music by Syd Masters & The Swing Riders. Southwestern cowboy swing attire is encouraged.
Mayor Martin Chávez will be the special guest, while honorees will be Jane and Doug Swift and the New Mexico Automobile Dealers Association.
If you go:
WHAT: Wheels Museum 2009 Gala Benefit
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Sept. 26
WHERE: Museum Warehouse, 1100 Second SW
HOW MUCH: Tickets are $100, or tables for 10 are
$900. Call 505 -243-6269 for reservations