Machinist: A Job in the AT&SF Backshops
By Monika Ghattas
Excerpts from an oral interview with Antonio Montoya , Jul. 1999
When Antonio Montoya graduated from Albuquerque High School in 1936, he decided to take a job as a weaver with the Salas family, who had come from Mexico and had set up a weaving shop in the back of his home. But two years later he applied for a job in the Albuquerque railroad yard; working for the railroad was not only more lucrative, but this was where most of his family was employed. His father, Jose Andres Montoya, had started as a clerk there and later became a welder. And it is quite possible that his maternal grandfather, Luis Sanchez, was one of the first blacksmiths hired by the railroad in the 1880s.
Like many other railroad veterans, Antonio Montoya remembers the exact date when he started with the railroad–October 9, 1939–and also his first wages– sixty-two cents an hour. For the first two years he was a machinist helper and then he was promoted to machinist apprentice. He still speaks fondly of his boss, Mr. Lapin, who taught him how to work with valves and connect throttles on steam engines. He also helped in the machine shop where they ‘pressed wheels’ to fit into the axles of the steam engines. There he learned how to run the lathes and milling machines and worked on compressors and big bolt machines. Much of this was precision work and involved considerable calculations with calipers and micrometers. Montoya worked on many of the 2900 series of steam engines, including Engine #2926, when the main wheels on those engines were converted to roller bearing. (Engine #2926, part of the Wheels Museum, is an Albuquerque landmark that stood in Coronado Park for many years until it was moved back on the tracks in 2001 for its eventual relocation to the museum site.)
Working with brass materials, such as shoes, bushings on rods, and sidings, was something Montoya especially liked. This was clean work that required considerable precision and fine tooling. For example, the clearance for the brass sidings on steam locomotives was only 1/64th of an inch.
Although his brothers all joined the service during World War II and did not return to the railroad after the war, Montoya stayed on and worked side by side with the many soldiers who were assigned to the back shops during the war. Often these men were trained machinists who had enlisted, but the government needed them to keep the railroads operating efficiently during the busy war years. They were housed in special barracks close to the tracks and also ran the firehouse. Montoya wistfully recalls that they collected two paychecks and could afford to frequent the many bars on Second Street.
Eventually, Montoya was selected to attend the machinist school for three years-two hours twice a week without pay. But as a machinist, he received a substantial pay raise and was eligible for more promotions. His workload also became lighter, because diesel engines required much less maintenance. Many of his later years were spent running the work equipment center. He retired with a disability in 1974. Wearing a hard hat had irritated his spine and he developed back problems.
The years working in the Albuquerque railroad yards were good for Montoya. He belonged to the railroad bowling league and traveled to competions all over the country, all the way to New York one year. He also traveled to the West Coast and other places for vacations and family visits. On weekends, he and his wife frequently socialized with neighbors and friends, who worked with him in the yards. Dancing at neighborhood centers and at the Elks was probably their favorite activity for many years.
Common Laborer: A Job in the AT & SF Backshops
By Monika Ghattas
Excerpts from an oral interview with Linda Takahashi, August 2001
Linda Takahashi was employed as a common laborer in the AT&SF backshops for about a dozen years, starting in the late 1970s. Her father, Henry Takahashi, was a locomotive painter there, so she was somewhat familiar with the backshops and with some of the people working there.
Her job was to dip wheel frames other railroad parts into a lye vat where they were kept overnight. The next day the laborers would use water and steam to remove most of the remaining dirt. It was a dirty job, but looking back Linda is especially struck by the fact that all of the cleaning materials and chemicals were dumped down the drain. The same was true for the wastes in the battery repair shop where Linda Takahachi sometimes worked.
There were only six women employed in the Albuquerque backshops during those years. But in spite of this insignificant number, there were some problems for the women working there. Some of the men accepted their female colleagues, while others were clearly resentful and uncooperative. There were various discriminatory actions and practices that the women had to put up with. Especially annoying was the situation with the restrooms. Facilities were very limited for the women and were located in awkward places. Repeated requests by the women to correct these conditions were either ignored or labeled as unimportant.
There were a lot of animals that lived in the yards, Linda Takahachi recalled. Many of the workers kept cats and brought food for them on a regular basis.
Linda Takahachi’s job was never very secure. During the 1980s the backshops were beginning to shut down and reduce their workforce. She was laid off a couple of times and finally quit in 1990 shortly before the backshops were closed.