WHEELS Museum Centerpiece of Railyard Redevelopment

By Mauro Montoya, Albuquerque Downtown Examiner

July 28, 2011

The Santa Fe Railyards in the Barelas neighborhood just south of Downtown Albuquerque were started in 1880 by Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe (ATSF)Railroad. The ATSF Railroad came to Albuquerque that year and tried to build railyards in Old Town. They discovered they could not build them in Old Town because it was too low, and was in danger of flooding from the Rio Grande. It was also too expensive. The railroad also sought sites in Belen and Bernalillo, but again costs kept them from building in either location. Many people in those towns did not want the railroad to move there because they thought they would lose their livelihoods moving merchandise by horse and buggy, their traditional way of transporting goods. So Santa Fe purchased 27 acres at the present site of the Railyards.

Most of the buildings are original, but some have been replaced as the yards grew and changed. By 1915 the Railyards as they now exist had been completed. From 1915, 1500 men worked there for several decades. The steam locomotive was king of the rails and the Railyards were a major repair facility in the Western U.S.

The height of the Yards began around 1915, but they were used for decades until diesel engines began to be used after World War II. During WWII, the shops were open 24 hours a day to repair trains for the war effort to keep supplies and war materiel on the move. Many men who may have gone to war from New Mexico stayed here to make sure war supplies could be delivered. There were few or no “Rosie the Riveters” here, it was difficult and heavy work many felt women could not do. Most of the men were local from Albuquerque and surrounding areas. These men and the ATSF Railroad virtually built Downtown, the South Broadway area, Barelas, Huning-Highlands and other neighborhoods for workers to live in. Businesses sprung up to accommodate this flood of workers including banks, markets, stores and bars.

The coming of the railroad helped Albuquerque become a burgeoning city. In addition, many people came for health reasons because the dry desert climate was supposed to be good for tuberculosis, asthma, and other lung diseases.

Many Hollywood stars from the 1920’s to the 1960’s would come through Downtown Albuquerque on the train and stop at the nearby Alvarado Hotel. They would sign autographs and pose for pictures with local residents. People such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Joan Crawford and many others made regular stops as they traveled cross-country before airplanes became more common.

At the end of WWII, the Railyards began winding down as more and more diesel locomotives were used. Steam engines were fairly quickly phased out. But people continued to work at the Railyards until the early 1970’s. However, while there was still technical work, and even some work on diesel engines, business was winding down. The Santa Fe Railway still kept the freight and motor freight operations, but little by little it disappeared. There continued to be some administrative work as well. The Railyards were always owned by the Atchison Topeka Santa Fe Railway before it merged with Burlington Northern to become the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffet. But by the end of the 1970’s, the buildings were virtually abandoned.

Several developers purchased the property in the succeeding years and attempted to revitalize them. Their efforts failed for a number of reasons. In an effort to preserve these spectacular historically significant buildings, the City of Albuquerque purchased property directly from a Texas developer in November, 2007 at the cost of $8.5 million. The goal is redeveloping the property as a mixed use development for all of New Mexico. The WHEELS Museum contributed $2.5 million towards the purchase price, and the property is held in the City’s name. WHEELS has also contributed to many environmental and planning studies in the course of its tenure. The grounds contain 27 acres and 350,000 square feet of buildings on the property. The Museum itself finally moved into the old freight building on the grounds in 2009.

The linchpin of future development is the WHEELS Museum. A 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, WHEELS is an acronym for We Have Everything Everyone Loves Spinning. The WHEELS Museum, while not yet open, has been functioning for 16 years. WHEELS has received two HUD grants, and received money from every level of government, local, state and federal, and has raised over $7,000,000. In addition, WHEELS has received private grants and has private sponsors, both local and nationally. WHEELS also received a grant from the McCune Foundation. The WHEELS Museum continues to seek funding from various governmental and private sources, and along with the City of Albuquerque is now in the process of finding a developer for a master plan for the Railyards. The City and state governments, along with the WHEELS Museum, formed the Railyard Advisory Panel. There are 18 members on the Panel, which includes government, Museum and neighborhood representatives.

Leba Freed is President of the Board of the WHEELS Museum and has been for its entire existence. There are currently 15 board members. The Museum also has a Fundraising Committee with13 members. All Board and Fundraising committee members are volunteers and WHEELS is always seeking more volunteers. While so many people have contributed to WHEELS and the Railyards, Leba is the heart and soul of the Railyards. In speaking to Leba, one hears the passion and love of these wonderful buildings in her voice, in her tireless energy in promoting WHEELS and in the future plans for the Museum and surrounding railyards. Leba has been head of the WHEELS Museum for the 16 years of its existence and will be there to see not only Opening Day of the WHEELS Museum, but also for the revitalized Railyards. Leba says, “People always ask when the museum will be finished. I am glad to say ‘never’. We have made huge strides, have saved the buildings, are in the rail yards now with a development center, warehouse and office, and looking to a long future with ever changing exhibits, functions, studying the progress of ‘society through moving’. From the earliest wheels to wheels on computers, in space, from green grass houses to green building, we are about the past, present and future.”

The City of Albuquerque requested proposals for redevelopment of the Railyards, with the WHEELS Museum being the cornerstone of any redevelopment. That request closed on September 10th, 2010, and on September. 21st, 2010, the Railroad Advisory Panel met to review the qualifications of potential developers. The Panel is looking for the most capable firm with experience in these kinds of major redevelopment projects. Probably the largest project ever undertaken in the state of New Mexico, the Panel must find a firm that understands funding and redevelopment. The legislation which funded the purchase calls for the WHEELS Museum and 30 units of affordable housing on the property. Beyond that, it is open to any appropriate functions which lend themselves to the history, culture and economic development of the city. One idea being considered is an all-New Mexico marketplace for small New Mexico businesses to showcase their goods. Others include rail charters, special events related to transportation and possible office space with super-high-speed internet capability.

WHEELS Museum hosted a group of private railcar owners, the American Association of Private Rail Car Owners on Saturday, September 25, 2010. These owners travel to different locations each year for their annual convention, and Albuquerque has always been one of their favorite stops because Amtrak is very friendly to them. The group was very excited to see the Railyards as they are one of the best examples still existing of these types of facilities. So enthusiastic were they that the Association is considering requesting to keep their cars located in the Railyards.