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“El Velador del Cañon de Abo”

by Eliseo R. Sisneros

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.

The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway employed numerous people in New Mexico. Many worked on section and extra gangs in the early to middle twentieth century. Eliseo R. Sisneros began his first railroad job in 1951 on labor gangs, moved through the ranks of machine operator, rain rider, assistant foreman, foreman, and eventually spent the last 18 years as track supervisor. Eliseo’s career spanned a significant transition from when many people lived along the Belen Cutoff and maintained the tracks to a later time when improved technology meant fewer laborers were necessary for a functioning railroad. Here, Eliseo talks about an incident in Abo Canyon when a man was injured, and he reflects on changes with the railroad.

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Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Yard Crew In Vaughn, New Mexico“Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Yard Crew In Vaughn, New Mexico,” Charlie Patterson (Photographer)

One night there was a rock come down in Abo Canyon and it hit the electric warning fence and knocked a hole in it. They called the Belen Section and couldn’t find a foreman. So I went up there with the assistant foreman and a bunch of men to help that signalman. We got the rock out of the track and then I told the assistant foreman, “Well, leave one man here with the signalman to help him fix that hole in the fence and you go to the east end and wait on him and go on in back to Belen.” Then I got in my pickup and I went off, but I didn’t have my radio on.

This signal maintainer had a little motorcycle that holds a basket and would go on the track. You put on the rod with the high rail wheel on one side and it had two little wheels on the other side, and you pull the lever and start. So, he got on the motorcycle and the men that they left over there to help him got in the basket, but they put in a railroad jack—it’s heavy, all the tools in there and that little basket and the section man—then they took off. It would have been alright, but there was a little crossing, and you know how them crossings had that plank in the center. I guess he was going as fast as that little motor cycle was going, but with that rod he had so much weight that when it hit that plank, both of them flew up and it broke the section man’s collarbone.

The assistant section foreman tried to get a hold of me on the radio, but I didn’t have my radio on. When I got to Belen, I noticed my radio was off. So, I turned it on and the first thing I heard he was still hollering that he had a man was hurt. I waited for him on the highway and yeah he was hurt so I took him straight on to the hospital. I got demerits over that because I was the head man; my section foreman didn’t get nothing. And the hurt guy got five demerits and the signalman got five demerits. I told them to give them to me, but they wouldn’t do it. The railroad said that the men had a lot of responsibility too. Railroading is a tough job—a lot of people don’t know—they just think it’s a pick and shovel. And it’s not just that my friend.

I think they got a better railroad now because I will tell you a story. The old man I learned to railroad from, his name was Tony Garcia. He used Santa Fe Railway engineer driving a steam engine on the local Belen-Vaughn run“Santa Fe Railway engineer driving a steam engine on the local Belen-Vaughn run,” Stan Kistler (Photographer) to be the section foreman at Scholle. When they cut out Scholle section, one day he said, “Sis.”—they use to call me Sis—“They will never hold this railroad without sections.” Well, they cut out Scholle section and cut out other sections. The last time I saw Tony, he was a section foreman at Vaughn and I was a track supervisor between and Vaughn and Ft. Sumner, and we were both standing there by the depot. And I bet you a train was going at 65 or 70 miles an hour when it went by. I looked at Tony and said, “I thought you told me one time, they wouldn’t hold it.” I said, “Look at that train. It goes faster, it’s got more tonnage, and they got a better railroad.” He said, “You know what, I never thought they would hold it.”