Building Cars: A Job in the AT&SF Railroad Yards
By Monika Ghattas
Excerpts from an oral interview with Candelario Chavez, October 1999
Candelario Chavez comes from an old time Albuquerque family. His grandfather had a barbershop in Old Town where Chavez attended San Felipe School. Years later he built the home he still lives in on land just north of Mountain Road between Old Town and downtown. The land was a gift from his grandfather.
Although Chavez did not begin working for the railroad immediately after he graduated from Albuquerque High School, it was almost certain that he would eventually be employed there. His father was a pipe fitter for the railroad and many of his relatives, including most of his brothers, worked for the AT&SF. Chavez started with the railroad in 1939. He went to work as a common laborer for 33 1/2 cents an hour in the Central Work Equipment Shop (CWE) under Fred Lewis. But when World War II broke out, he was the first one drafted from the yard. His wartime experiences made an indelible mark on his life. He served 4 1/2 years in the infantry and participated both in the Battle of the Bulge and D-Day. His most prized possession is the Silver Star for bravery he received during the war.
After the war Chavez returned to the backshops and was soon promoted to helper. But he disliked the night work and asked to be transferred into the yards to build wagons and work on the wrecking crew. He and his team built, repaired and converted all kinds of cars needed by the railroad. They converted boxcars into stock cars; they repaired ore cars for the Santa Rita mines; they changed the lighting system on passenger cars from batteries to generators that were placed on the wheels. Whenever they began production on a new car, they were required to produce a sample car.
Chavez worked mainly outside in the yards, but he was also very familiar with the backshops. He talked at length about the locomotive repair shops and how the locomotives were stripped and repaired. The skill of the crane operators, who moved the locomotives very slowly in the repair shops, always amazed him. Locomotives coming into the backshops for refurbishing were put into pigeonholes and stripped by the stripping gang. Once they were repaired they were put in the firing shed, where they were fired up while federal and local inspectors watched. From there they went into the roundhouse to check for leaks. Many of the locomotives had names, such as Molly or Little Buttercup. And their front bumpers were called cowcatchers—for obvious reasons. Chavez discussed various changes in railroad design over the years. Even though the breaking systems have changed in many ways, today’s disk brakes, called bud brakes, still operate on air. But the purpose of the caboose disappeared, because it was no longer necessary to watch the wheels when heat detractors, a type of sensor, were placed on the wheels.
The unions tried to force the railroad to retain the cabooses or crummies, as Chavez called them. (He was a great source for railroad lingo.) The same was true for the fire trucks. Chavez was not a union man and felt that the unions all too often sabotaged or obstructed necessary changes in the yards and backshops. The unions opposed automation and tried to force the railroad to retain archaic practices, like wagon plaques, that were no longer necessary.
Chavez maintains that there was often an attitude problem in the Albuquerque railroad yards. Too many of the men wanted something for nothing and did a lot of unnecessary complaining. Other railroad repair and maintenance centers in the area– Oklahoma or Kansas, for example–did not want any transfers from Albuquerque, because they were too negative. He also did not do much traveling on the trains, because he felt they were unsafe.
Yet Chavez made many friends in the railroad yards, too. He socializes with many of his neighbors who are former railroad employees. Hanging on his front porch are a couple of markers that used to sit on the edges of a caboose and were used to send coded light signals to the conductor. He also has railroad lanterns and other memorabilia from his years in the railroad yards.
Painter: A Job in the AT&SF Backshops
By Monika Ghattas
Excerpts from an oral interview with Henry Takahachi, August 2001
Hank Takahachi retired in 1986 after working thirty-four years in the Albuquerque AT&SF railroad backshops. During most of these years he was a painter for the railroad. But unlike many of the other retirees from the Albuquerque yards, Takahachi came a long way around before starting with the railroad. Born in California, he and his Japanese immigrant parents along with other family members were interned in an Arizona detention center at the outbreak of World War II. A job in a Cleveland defense plant enabled him to get a special release permit from the camp. After that he went into the military and that led him eventually to Albuquerque.
When Takahachi first started in the backshops, he was employed as a common laborer. He washed heavy equipment, worked the forklift, and ran the carloader from stall to stall. Some time later he became a painter—assigned first to boxcars and then to locomotives. He painted the numbers and all insignia on the locomotives. One of the engines he worked on was Engine #2926 that stood in Coronado Park for many years, but was moved back on the tracks in 2001 for its eventual relocation to the Wheels Museum site. Usually the locomotives were painted with lacquer paints after they were sprayed with steam and water to wash off the grease and remove the old paint. Some parts were dipped into a lye vat for cleaning. Locomotives were painted every time they came in for major repair or maintenance.
There were two paint shops in the yards and four to five locomotive painters. Aside from the locomotives, they also painted general equipment, like cranes and track machinery. Takahachi also did general maintenance lettering and sometimes worked in the signmaker shop painting signs for the yards and tracks. However, none of the locomotive painters worked on the interior or exterior walls of the buildings or other structures in the railroad yard.
Takahachi was very familiar with the steam machinery in the yards and mentioned how the railroad company homes on First Street were all heated with steam that came via underground pipes from the boiler rooms in the yards.
Although the unions pushed for better working conditions, Takahachi felt there were always dangers and problems for the men working in the backshops. There was, for example, a high level of noise. He used ear protectors, but many others did not. There was also a lot of asbestos around—its danger would not be recognized until years later. Sometimes asbestos was mixed with water to keep the dust down. It was also put on the boilers. About ten years ago Takahachi was asked to take x-rays to check asbestos exposure. Fortunately for him, he tested negative.
In addition, there were many accidents, both major and minor, in the yards. Takahachi recounted the same incident that former boilermaker Bonifacio Anaya mentioned about a ‘Jordan spread’, a device with wings attached to a locomotive to clear snow from the tracks, that malfunctioned and impaled a worker standing next to it. Boilermakers were especially vulnerable, because they had to heat the tires before attaching them to the locomotives and sometimes they slipped out of the men’s hands and caused severe burns. Someone lost a leg when one of those wheels fell on him. The injured man, however, was retained by the railroad and continued to work in the backshop.
Takahachi was also injured a couple of times and had to go to the railroad hospital for treatment. But each time he returned to the job, the foreman urged him to forgo a formal report of his injury to the Department of Transportation– the required procedure. Instead Takahachi was given a reduced workload for the next several weeks with regular pay. The local shops always wanted to keep their accident and injury percentages low and tried to take care of these problems in a satisfactory manner without informing the head office.
Like many other railroad veterans, Takahachi has fond memories of his years in the backshops. He enjoyed the camaraderie and described the various nicknames of fellow workers. He was known as Hippo, Spanish for Japanese; Wheatie was a fellow who cleaned out boxcars and took the scraps home for his chickens. This name really stuck after he reported that all of his chickens had died. Even today Takahachi easily recalls the nicknames of friends and former fellow workers, while he has forgotten their real names. It was during his railroad years that Takahachi picked up a lifetime hobby—bowling. He was a member of the railroad bowling league and traveled with his team to several competitions in the East. One year they won the district championship. Today he still bowls whenever possible and often with old friends from the backshops.