By Leslie Linthicum – JOURNAL STAFF WRITER
Mike Kelly and his intrepid band of historians had already done the creepy work
— picking through the dark, dank basement of the old Albuquerque Freight House,
shining flashlights on piles of musty, moldy papers — when I caught up with them.
Now the object of their intrigue was packed into cardboard boxes — hundreds of them
— and laid out on the concrete floor of a warehouse in southeast Albuquerque.
It wasn’t creepy anymore; now it was just yucky. Kelly, the director of the
Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico, put on an air-filtering
face mask and offered me one.
“Lots of mold, lots of particles. Mouse poop, probably,” he said.
The joy of the archivist is the joy of the unknown. Will this box of crinkly,
brown-edged papers contain the answer to some question that has vexed
historians? Will it surprise you with a love story? Or is it just a bunch of boring old
The Center for Southwest Research archives all sorts of collections —
recordings of Hispanic folk music, author John Nichols’ papers, documents
signed by the duke of Albuquerque and thousands more.
The phone call that brought Kelly and archivist Beth Silbergleit to this mucky
collection came from Ed Boles, the city of Albuquerque’s historic preservation
planner, who had discovered that a trove of records for the Atchison, Topeka and
Santa Fe Railway had been stored for years in the old Freight House in
Downtown, now owned by the city.
The records pertained to the railroad’s Albuquerque Division and dated back
to 1914. Knowing the importance of the rails to the development of Albuquerque
and New Mexico, the city arranged to sign the papers over to UNM.
Weeks later, here they were. There are personnel records for every man and
woman who ever worked in the Albuquerque division, ledgers that chronicle each
minor train accident, general business correspondence and train stocking lists,
down to the number of flares and rolls of toilet paper.
Much of it is arcane: A map showing where the rail company proposed to
extend the sewer line from the old Alvarado Hotel, and another where the rail
proposed to place a trailer at the yard in Hurley.
Now comes the culling.
Veteran railroad historian Vernon J. Glover (he collected his first item about
railroads in 1949, a set of drawings of a locomotive) was walking through the
room, looking into boxes and helping Kelly determine the significance of various
stacks of paper.
“You don’t want to give the scholar more than they can ever go through,” Kelly
says. “You want to try to really identify the materials that have the most research
value. That explain when things happened, what happened and why it happened.”
Kelly hopes the collection can be pared down to a useful size and one that
can be cleaned and archived for around $250,000, for which Kelly will seek grant
He hopes the collection — chronicling the day-to-day running of the railroad
from 1914 through the 1980s — ultimately will tell the story of an industry through
its heyday and into its decline.
I spent a little time rummaging around in one box, and I can tell you that the
collection will also tell the story — at least one side of it — of the relationship
between a railroad claims adjuster named Chuck and a world-traveling young
woman named Baby.
A collection of letters from Baby sent in the 1940s — postmarked Manila,
Calcutta, Madrid, Cairo, Rome, Buenos Aires — had been tucked away in a desk
drawer and wound up in the Freight House basement.
What was Chuck’s story? Who was Baby? Why did she faithfully send her
regards to his wife and son but also like it when he called her a “tomato”? And
what happened in Chicago when she was weighing Bill’s marriage proposal and
Chuck suddenly turned a cold shoulder?
The contents of that box shed absolutely no light on railroad operations, but
they’ll definitely make it into the archive. Kelly, a historian who loves diaries, will
make sure of that.
“It’s a little tiny thing that pops up in this corporate madness. And it gives you
a sense of the human side,” Kelly tells me. “I think it’s a wonderful story.”
You never know what you’re going to find when you open up a box of papers.