Blog   |   Apr 17th, 2017 TRC archaeologists help Albuquerque rediscover relics of its historic past

Alb Rail Yard

One of the most popular attractions in Albuquerque, the biggest city in New Mexico, is the Rail Yards Historic District, where the old Santa Fe Railway’s locomotive shops and facilities have become home to the transportation museum operated by the WHEELS Museum Foundation, food and craft shops, and a summer farmers’ market.

Recently, working for the city’s Planning Department, TRC completed archaeological testing that revealed the historic district has even more history than we knew. Using advanced ground-penetrating radar and metal-detection devices, we also found clues about the late nineteenth and early twentieth century railroad facilities, including a 1903 turntable and associated roundhouse, coal bins, a wooden tunnel, and a local urban legend about old steam locomotives reportedly buried at this site, a unique tactic to keep a building from falling down.

Founded as a city by Spanish explorers in 1706, Albuquerque had grown to become a leading Southwestern commercial center when the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway arrived in 1880. The “Santa Fe” built rail yards and shops a mile east of Old Town, within the Hispanic community of Barelas, and steadily replaced and expanded them into the 1930s.

While some of the glass-walled shops have been repurposed for commerce, much of the historic area has been paved over for parking and a summer farmer’s market. Redevelopment is being planned. TRC was hired by city planners to determine whether significant historical remains associated with the 1880s to 1930s rail yards had been buried, and if so, what they could reveal about early Albuquerque.

Using high-resolution metal detection and ground-penetrating radar (GPR), we successfully confirmed the remains of several features of the railyard complex that contemporary maps, birds-eye drawings, and other sources had never incorporated. These included coal pits and a wooden tunnel that served as a conduit for diesel fuel lines as diesel fuel replaced coal in the 1920s. We also identified, about a foot under the asphalt surface, the pilasters and rail foundations of a roundhouse and the 1903 locomotive turntable, 85 feet in diameter, once used to move engines from one track to another in the shop complex.

For decades, stories have circulated in Albuquerque about several locomotives reportedly buried at the northwest corner of the machine shop. This area was in the old floodplain of the Rio Grande River, swampy land that was drained, and in many places the soil remained unstable. An urban legend is that at some point in the 1930s to 1940s, when the ground was sinking under the machine shop, Santa Fe officials had some abandoned locomotives pushed under the shop walls to keep the building from collapsing.

Our magnetometer survey showed a very large magnetic anomaly about 56 feet long, in this area. However, because of the concrete slabs that make up the pavement, subsurface excavations could not be done to confirm what is buried at this locus.

So for now, the mystery of Albuquerque’s buried locomotives remains unsolved. But TRC’s testing has indicated that for all that got rebuilt and removed in the late 1910s and early 1920s, the architectural remains of the earliest railroad period in Albuquerque are sitting preserved–available for readaptation–beneath the parking lots and buildings that are within the proposed future development of the Rail Yards Historic District.

I will be presenting about the Albuquerque Rail Yards Historic District archaeological work on April 21 at the joint Arizona and New Mexico Historical Society Convention in Flagstaff, Arizona. 

Blog Author

Kenneth L. Brown, Ph.D., RPA

Kenneth L. Brown, Ph.D., RPA, is the Cultural Resources Program Manager for TRC's Albuquerque office. He has more than 44 years of experience in all phases of cultural resource management. His geographical areas of research include the Southwest and Great Plains. His research expertise and areas of interest include faunal analysis, flaked stone and ground stone tool analysis, prehistoric and historic cultural landscapes, historic artifact identification and analysis, and historic architecture. He has spent the past 26 years in New Mexico and has been involved with numerous prehistoric and historic research projects. He earned his degrees in Anthropology (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) from the University of Kansas. Contact him at