Boilermaker: A Job in the AT&SF Backshops
By Monika Ghattas
Excerpts from an oral interview with Bonifacio Anaya, Jun. 1999
The life of Bonifacio Anaya illustrates some of the principal features of Albuquerque during the first half of the twentieth century. There was a boyhood in Barelas, a neighborhood close to downtown and rich in social and community activities. To the south and west were the orchards and fields of South Valley farmers and beyond that the Rio Grande, the favorite summer destination for all the younger generation. “I remember swimming and fishing all summer long and sometimes we climbed over fences to steal ripe watermelons,” recalls Anaya. On the eastside was the railroad. Like the river it was a demarcation line that divided the city from north to south. Long before he actually went to work there, Anaya was much influenced by the railroad. The railroad yards, bordered by all kinds of interesting stores and commercial establishments, were the most exciting area in the city. Lots of people came and went and here was where most of his brothers and neighbors worked. Even the railroad yard whistle that signaled shift changes, lunch breaks for the workers, and other important railroad activities, was a conventional part of his day.
Anaya went to work for the railroad in the late 1930s and continued through World War II. His job brought him an exemption from the draft; after the war he moved to California to work in the shipyards for several years. At the railroad Anaya was a boilermaker, who serviced the boilers on steam locomotives. More than half a century later he still remembers that each steam locomotive had around 800 bolts and three miles of tubing. For this work he was paid $2.00 a day-a very good wage for that day as he still contends.
There is still a bit of nostalgia in Anaya’s voice when he recalls the camaraderie in the yards during those years: “We all got along pretty well and often went to local dance halls and the Savoy Hotel on Saturday nights. In the summer there were picnics in the mountains organized by the supervisors in the yards.” Anaya lived close enough to the tracks that he usually went home for lunch. He also took advantage of the free travel and rode to California several times.
However, the one big drawback of working on the railroad was the accidents that were common and often very serious. There were frequent mechanical failures and accidents with the huge cranes in the locomotive repair shops. There were also several fatal accidents that Anaya recalled. A painter working on the numbers of a locomotive was impaled against the sides of the engine by a snow-removing vehicle when its blades unexpectedly snapped outward. Another man slipped and drowned in a vat of hot paint in which wheels were dipped. Shortly before Anaya quit, the unions came in and instituted certain safety regulations, like hard hats and safety shoes-measures that would eventually improve working conditions.
Machinist: A Job in the AT&SF Albuquerque Roundhouse
By Monika Ghattas
Excerpts from an oral interview with Victor Castillo, October 2000
Victor Castillo started in the Albuquerque railroad roundhouse in 1922. He may be the oldest railroad veteran in Albuquerque today. Born in 1904 in the vicinity of Guadalajara, Mexico, he came to the United States on February 17, 1920, after his father died and his family lost all of its property in the Mexican Revolution. His older brother was in Philadelphia working for the railroad and encouraged him to come. But the brothers did not like the winters in Philadelphia and had problems with their limited English, so they traveled across the country, working for a time in Wyoming, California, and La Junta, Colorado. Then in 1922 they heard about a strike in the Albuquerque railroad yards and that the railroad was looking for available workers. Castillo’s brother was hired right away, but Victor was too young to be legally employed. So his brother advised him to send a telegram to the railroad office telling them that he was willing to work and that he was twenty-one years old. Railroad officials knew he was underage, but the telegram was all that was needed to hire him. So in 1922 at the age of seventeen, he was hired as a machinist helper for sixty-two cents an hour. He continued to work in the Albuquerque railroad roundhouse and backshops for 46 years until he retired in 1969 with an hourly wage of $3.50.
Castillo spent most of his working life in the roundhouse servicing steam locomotives. “I think I was born with a railroad in my bones and I have a lifelong love affair with steam locomotives,” he wistfully remarks. He worked on countless locomotives during his long career. Steam locomotives had to be serviced every few hundred miles, which meant several engine changes between Albuquerque and Los Angeles. When diesel engines came into general use, there was a substantial reduction in maintenance, because the diesel machines could go to Chicago and back without any major servicing.
In 1925 Castillo was selected to attend the machinist school. He attended classes twice a week for three years until he took his machinist exam in 1927 and passed with a score of 85 %. His hourly pay was now seventy-six cents an hour. He spent an additional six months in the backshops learning about different machinery and how to weld.
Although he appreciated the steady employment the railroad provided for him, Castillo also recounted the hardship of working the night shift for twenty-three years. There were also very few days off until the unions came in. Married with a young family, he recalls watching other young couples stroll by the yards in the evening, while he had to work. His many years of night work were partly due to the Depression, because the railroad had to close other shops in the country and would transfer workers to Albuquerque. They usually arrived with more seniority, so he invariably was moved back.
All during those years he also built the home he still lives in today—working whenever he had the time and buying adobe bricks for a penny a piece in the early years. Although his home is located on the west side of the Rio Grande, he always felt that he was close to the railroad yards, because many other railroad employees lived close by and the yard whistle was as much part of his life as it was for those in nearby Barelas. Asked about the Alvarado Hotel that was demolished in the 1960s in the early sweep of urban renewal. Castillo, like other former railroad employees, remembers it only as a nice place that had little if any relevance to his life.
Work was good during World War II. Castillo received a draft deferment, because he held an‘essential’ job. Frequently he worked double shifts of sixteen hours, sometimes as often as three times a week. But it was good money and there was a lot of activity in the yards during those years.
After the war the first diesel engines appeared. By the late 1950s and into the 1960s they were taking the place of the old steam locomotives. Castillo had three months of additional schooling to become a diesel machinist. But he never really adjusted to the diesel machines: “everything went to hell when the diesels came in,” he remarked.
Castillo was a strong union man—his brother was a union representative in the yards. He feels that the unions improved working conditions substantially. There were more concerns about worker safety and more time off for the workers. Asked about what was the greatest benefit of the unions, he unhesitatingly replies that it was the pensions. Also important for general morale was a grievance committee for the men in the yards.
After his retirement Castillo went to work for his son, pharmacist Victor Castillo, the owner of Victor’ Drugs. The younger Castillo was present during some of the interview and mentioned that he spent a summer in the yards as a common laborer before he continued his formal education. “I was shocked how the supervisors treated the workers,” he remarked. He also remembered rampant discrimination. That summer convinced him to get a higher education. .
But Victor Castillo harbors no bitter feelings about his railroad career. He still loves talking trains; his home is filled with all kinds of trains, pictures of trains, train bookends, and so forth. On the wall is his framed certificate of 30 years service for the railroad. He is very proud of this and considers himself lucky to have spent most of his working life doing what he enjoyed.