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“Anything Was Wrong With The Track We Had To Fix It”

by Fidel Padilla

Shawn Kelley was born in a pickup truck in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and grew up in Arizona. Today he is an anthropologist and oral historian who has talked with people from all walks of life throughout the Southwest. As a result of the Abo Canyon Second Track Project, Shawn has interviewed over 60 people about their communities and life experiences along the Belen Cutoff.

Many Hispanos in the Abo area have worked for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway since the construction of the Belen Cutoff in 1907. For decades, section gangs provided steady employment and drew people from across New Mexico and other areas to bring their families and live along the railroad. Sections on the Santa Fe Railway initially covered six miles of track and required roughly six individuals and a foreman for maintenance. Employees frequently established settlements around the section housing, resulting in many small towns along the Cutoff. Railroad technology improved throughout the twentieth century and locomotive engines shifted from steam to diesel power, resulting in sections greater than six miles in length and fewer people needed for maintenance. Only small portions of the original settlements at railroad sections remain today. Below, Fidel Padilla describes what it was like being a section-gang worker in Scholle and what the watchmen did in Abo Canyon.

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Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Standard Track Tools“Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Standard Track Tools,” Unknown (Artist)

My father was first at work here in 1919 in Abo and then they hired me after him. He worked for 10 cents an hour. I started to work in 1940 for the Santa Fe Railroad. Then my brother Elfido worked in here. We both worked together in Scholle, Belen. I guess I worked there for many years. When he retired he was machine operator and I was a machine operator too when I retired. I used to have a foreman; his name was Kayser. Antonio Garcia was another foreman too—in Scholle. We used to take care of that canyon day and night. We worked there—just laying some ties—whatever they need. Anything was wrong with the track we had to fix it. Sometimes they got a broken rail; sometimes they got some mess on the tracks.

Sometimes they used to put me in Abo Canyon during the nighttime—like a kind of watchman—because rocks come down in the cuts and it was raining or something like that. They had a little shack there for if you stayed in the nighttime. You had to make two trips from the shack to the Sais crossing; you rest and go back again. A dangerous place, two miles or so—I don’t know how long that is. The one at nighttime, he was the one that would have to notify the foreman in case of something wrong. You called the dispatcher that something was wrong. Then the dispatcher would tell the foreman that the canyon watchman is in trouble—they got stones on the tracks, rocks, or whatever. The foreman would pick up the rest of the men and take them and clean it up. They don’t have any canyon watchmen anymore. The Scholle section gang at work in Abo Canyon“The Scholle section gang at work in Abo Canyon,” Unknown (Photographer) Now they added some electricity to a fence: the rocks hit, they turn on the lights, and some way they got the information.

Since they took out the section I used to work out with the extra jennies (railroad cars) so we didn’t have nothing in the canyon again. They don’t stay in there like they used to. Oh yes, they took two of the sections away so they didn’t hire no people in the sections in Scholle after working there. No, now they just got a machine; whenever they need some work on the track they just put one of those machines—lays one mile a day. Yes, they do the work in a week and then go somewhere else.