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“Wherever The Work Took Us, That’s Where We Went”

by Randy Dunson

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.

Randy Dunson’s family is part of the large migration of settlers to eastern New Mexico in the twentieth century. Both his grandfathers worked for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, his father worked for the railroad, and Randy is currently a locomotive engineer. Working on a track gang in the 1950s and 1960s required living where the work was along the Belen Cutoff. Randy Dunson experienced this type of lifestyle as a boy when his family lived in boxcars and moved wherever the railroad needed his father. Researching the history of railroads in New Mexico has been a lifelong passion, and Randy has amassed an incredible collection of photographs, remembrances, and material on the Belen Cutoff. Here, he talks about a childhood along the railroad and what the first Navajo work gang in the area was like.

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Randy Dunson and his mother outside their bunk car on the Belen Cutoff“Randy Dunson and his mother outside their bunk car on the Belen Cutoff,” Unknown (Photographer)

The first eight years of my life were spent in a 40-foot wooden boxcar converted for living quarters. Up and down the Belen Cutoff; just wherever the work took us that’s where we went. I made every school between Clovis and Belen, except Yeso. We were there in the summertime—I missed Yeso. Sometime in the probably ’54-’55 era, the Santa Fe hired the first Navajo gang on the division and my dad got 'em. They just about gave him ulcers until he got 'em figured out. It was kind of politically incorrect, what happened. We were at Greenfield, New Mexico, which was around Dexter, and my dad had a Hispanic man who got sunstroke and died working on a tie gang. So when all was said and done, that crew—which was predominantly from up around Anton Chico, Ribera, that area, almost all those guys were from that place—they were gone. And come Monday morning, he had 60 Navajos. It was very interesting, us adapting to them, and them adapting to us.

There was quite a large number of these bunk cars for 60 people. I’m gonna guess there were probably eight men in each car. The foreman had his own car, the assistant foreman had his own car, and I believe the timekeeper had his own car. Then we had a cook car and a dining car, and I believe the cooks had their own car. We would have several tank cars of water. At this time, all these cars were old wooden boxcars. Well it was quite a number of cars.

We also had a commissary car, which was neat, because you could buy a candy bar there. They sold—this guy in this commissary car, it was just another boxcar—they sold snacks, work clothing, and toiletries. And this guy would keep track of all that, and sometimes it took two timekeepers, because all of these things were deducted from these guys’ wages. At the time, we thought that these people were pretty crude and that their hygiene was not good, but that was before today when we know about saunas (steam baths). We had a shower car, and it was steel and connected to the old tank car for water. There was a hand pump, and you could pump water up into this elevated tank across the top. Gravity would let you take a shower, but it never got used. The Navajos would go out and dig a big hole, and we had all those cross-ties, so they lined it with cross-ties, covered it with dirt, and get their hot rocks and get in there, and do their thing, but they never took a regular shower.

Generally when they moved the gang, they would move it on the weekends. We had rail passenger service at that Replacing A Frog On The Yeso Section“Replacing A Frog On The Yeso Section,” Unknown (Photographer) time, and a lot of these guys would go back to Gallup for the weekend. And it was real interesting, they were real good about if they didn’t come back, they would send somebody in their place. So Monday morning generally my dad would still have 60 Navajos, but it may not be the same 60.

He had a very hard time figuring out how to work with 'em at first. My dad was the kind of guy that liked to work real hard, and then lay back. He found out they had one pace, but it was a good pace. He got more production than he had ever got before, but he couldn’t hurry 'em up, he couldn’t slow 'em down. And he found that it seemed like there’d be one or two guys that were natural leaders, and he’d put this guy in charge. Of course there was a language problem—real or whether they were just puttin’ on, who knows? He found pretty much that he didn’t have a whole lot to do, once he got the system figured out, and got them figured out.

I graduated from high school in 1967 and I wasn’t old enough to go to work on the railroad. My dad kept sayin’, “You don’t want to work for the railroad. You’re gonna do somethin’ different, you need to go to college.” So, I went to Eastern New Mexico University a year. Then in 1968, I was 18, and every year the railroad used to hire a bunch of kids for the summer. I did it and I’m still here—longest summer job I ever had.