South of the Homewise Orpheum Community Hub and within the walls of the railyards property lies the Wheels Museum. Located in the 21,000 square foot Freight building (also known as the Storehouse), the museum is dedicated to the preservation of the history of transportation and travel in New Mexico and the southwest.
What we know as the Railyards today, was once the Santa Fe Railway Shops. It was a maintenance facility constructed by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway to service steam locomotives and was one of only four major maintenance facilities in the country. The original railway shops were erected on the site in the 1880s, however, the buildings as they stand today were erected in 1915. The Santa Fe Railway Shops were once the largest employer in the state, employing up to 1500 men and contributing to the growth of Albuquerque at the turn of the century.
Being that I am a history enthusiast, I was extremely excited to visit the museum! I met with Leba Freed, founder and president of the museum to take a tour and learn about the Railway Shops history and conservation efforts for the site.
What is the history of the Wheels Museum and when was it founded?
In 1995, I got the idea to save the railyards and by 1999, the Wheels Museum became a nonprofit with a mission to create a transportation museum focusing on rail history and the importance of people who made Albuquerque a city. We are here for the community to understand the importance of this site. It was the largest rail repair facility between Chicago and L.A. and an important part of the history of America. At the Railway Shops, 40 locomotives a month were repaired here and neighborhoods were developed because the railyards employed many people. During World War II, the site was open 24 hours a day to send goods to soldiers and save our country. The Machine Shop is the largest building on site at 166,000 square feet and five stories high. When diesel became the modern technology, steam was no longer used and because of this, the shops closed in 1977 and all of the equipment was removed from the site. The property sat vacant until 1995. I raised money and formed the Wheels Museum nonprofit. In 2007, the city purchased the property and the museum moved into the Railyards. The Wheels Museum is all volunteer run and the exhibits displayed are about the men who worked here and includes some equipment from the railyard. We also have oral histories, photographs, and a major collection of every gauge of model train and layouts. The museum contains an antique automobile collection including a firetruck and buggy, and just recently, we acquired a private railcar known as the Silver Iris. It is an 85 foot, fully restored luxury railcar built in 1952 that was privately owned for many years and donated to us. The railcar has eight bedrooms, ten bathrooms, a lounge car, and a kitchen! Our hope and plan for the Wheels Museum is to do excursions on it and create a major attraction for the neighborhood as well as New Mexico.
What do you see as the future of the Wheels Museum?
It is the mission of Wheels to educate, collect, and inspire about transportation of the west. It is our goal to expand with more space and many more exhibits. We are about the progress of society through moving. We will continue to collect exhibits about the past, present and future of progress on wheels.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
We will be open to the public during the Railyard Holiday Market this month. We do private tours, events, presentations, and we are always seeking new volunteers! In addition, we will be having a fundraiser on February 9 featuring a performance by Adam Swanson, renowned jazz and ragtime pianist. Tickets will be $20 and the event will be at the First Unitarian Church on Carlisle to benefit the restoration of the Silver Iris railcar.
Do you love toy trains? Antique cars? Have you ever been interested in the history of the railyards? If so, I highly recommend visiting the Wheels Museum. It is a great window into the history of Albuquerque as well as the history of transportation in New Mexico. The Wheels Museum’s current hours are Monday-Thursday from 9am to 12pm and by appointment. If you are planning to attend the annual Railyards Holiday Market on December 13th and 14th, they will be open during market hours! If you are interested in learning more about the museum, purchase tickets for the fundraiser, or to organize a private event or tour, you can check out their Facebook page, their website, or contact them at 505.243.6269.