“Life At the Sais Crusher”
by Bill Huckabay
Shawn Kelley is an anthropologist and oral historian who has talked with all kinds of people throughout the Southwest. As part of the Abo Canyon Second Track Project, Shawn has interviewed over 60 people about their communities and life experiences along the Belen Cutoff.
In the first half of the twentieth century, there were very few jobs available to people living in central New Mexico near Abo Canyon. Some individuals worked for the railroad on section gangs and others found employment at the Sais Quarry. The Santa Fe Railway operated a crusher there from 1903 to 1958 to provide gravel and ballast for use along their system. Because of its remote location almost 10 miles from the nearest towns, many employees in the early days lived on-site. Sharp and Fellows was the contractor used by the Santa Fe Railway to operate the quarry and provided boxcars and shacks for the workers. Bill Huckabay lived intermittently at the crusher during the forties and fifties when his father oversaw quarry operations for the railroad. Here, Bill talks about life at the crusher.
~ ~ ~ ~ “Labor Crew At The Santa Fe Railway Quarry In Sais, New Mexico,” Unknown (Photographer)
My dad was working as civil engineer for the railroad, and it was his job to make sure the contractor was doing what they were supposed to do at the crusher. My friend Albert McNeil’s dad (Louis McNeil) was the superintendent for the contracting company, Sharp and Fellows. August of 1943, we moved out there to the crusher. My dad worked out there with the exception of a few years until it shut down in 1958 and we went back to Clovis. There was a car man, telegraph operator, and my dad. That was all the railroad employees out there.
I toured the crusher a lot of times with my dad, when it was running. We’d go up to the main crusher where the trucks would come up out of the quarry and dump the big rocks in. There was just a little foot path around that crusher and no safety fence, so the rock would get stuck, and the guys had long bars that they’d poke around and get it to go on through. It’d go through the main crusher, and then through a screen that would take out certain sizes. One time when I was living out there, Felipe Sanchez got caught in the crusher and died.
They all worked at the mine, except nobody called it a mine, they called it a rock crusher. I call it a rock mine where they mined rock for ballast on the railroad. I’m guessing there had to be somewhere between thirty and fifty guys working out there at various times. They had probably twenty or better dump trucks, so there was a guy driving each one of those and a shovel operator or two. Then you had the powder monkeys—people drilling and getting ready to do a blast. They worked all the time. They had two kinds of drills: they had what you called a well driller, and it would just pound a hole straight down, and the other kind of drill they had was called a wagon drill. It was a rotary drill, and it’d drill in the side of the hill—solid rock. Anyway, periodically they’d pack all those with powder and blow it. When they blasted, it didn’t last all that long. They had to get all the holes drilled, and it’d take ’em months to get all that ready. Then Albert’s dad would tell everybody it was gonna happen, and would drive a pickup truck up to the top of the hill and wave his hat, yelling, “Fire in the hole, fire in the hole!” Then he’d jump in the truck, run down, and the thing would go off. I’d hide down underneath the car and watch it, what I could see of it. Rocks would sometimes come down and land where we were.
There were several converted boxcars; people lived in all those. There was also a bunch of railroad tie shacks and there were people living in them. The car we lived in was an old business coach, like you see in the old-time movies: inlaid walls of mahogany, gas light fixtures, and windows all across a raised portion on the top. Up there on the wall above the main coal stove that was used for heat was written “1929,” the last time that car was in the shop for repairs in Topeka. When I first moved out there, you cooked with coal, you heated with coal. In 1943, the only electric power came during the daytime when the power plant was running the crusher and then at night there was a very small generator that you could only use for lights. Water was brought in from Belen. They put this water tank up on top and it was all gravity fed. Early days, there was a communal shower house and a family would go in at a time—or a bunch of girls or whatever. You know, it was tough on womenfolk out there. It was hard living.
There was a cook car in the old days; I’m talking about the forties and before. Ma Green was the cook and Al Green was a shovel operator or a drop hammer operator, so they both worked for Sharp and Fellows Contracting Company and fixed and furnished meals for all those contractor workers. Sometime after the war, the cook car went away and there were a lot less people lived out there. They’d live in Belen or Mountainair and commute. It wasn’t that big a deal to commute anymore.