Cathedral of steam: Inside Albuquerque's abandoned locomotive shops

What do "The Avengers," "Transformers," and "Terminator Salvation" have in common? They all filmed at the abandoned steam locomotive repair shops in Albuquerque, N.M.

Train trucks
A piece of a train sits outside the machine shop. Amanda Kooser/CNET

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.--There are a lot of reasons film scouts for sci-fi movies visit the abandoned Santa Fe Railway locomotive repair shops here and go crazy over the crumbling industrial cathedral. The buildings are massive and lined with tiles of white and green windows. Old machinery rusts overhead and in corners. The shops just scream "movie set."

Nerdy New Mexico

I'm visiting this ode to railroading history with a tour guide from The New Mexico Steam Locomotive and Railroad Historical Society. These are the same people who are rebuilding an entire steam engine on the other end of town. The guide lets our tour group through the locked gate and we step back in time about 80 years.

This facility is where the Santa Fe Railway brought its steam engines for repair work. It's not like you can just pull one of those behemoths into a regular garage and give it a tune-up. You need space. Lots of it.

The grandest of the buildings is the 165,000-square-foot machine shop, where rows upon rows of steam engines could be lined up for maintenance and repair. The multi-paned windows stretch upward, giving it the sense and scale of a church. The floors are made from wood bricks, chosen as a way to dampen the clamor of the repair work. Bullet casings from 9 mm blanks litter the floor, left over from some movie, or possibly a scene from "Breaking Bad."

The shops were built on more than 27 acres in the early 1900s, a time when steam-breathing giants roamed the rails, carrying cargo and people. All those beasts needed regular maintenance and repair. Many of them came here where powerful cranes could lift them up inside the buildings, parts could be fabricated, and the iron horses could return to running form.

Steam drop hammer
Workers hammer out a draw bar on the steam drop hammer in the blacksmith shop in 1943. Library of Congress

All of that ended in 1970. With the decline of the steam locomotives, so came the closing of one of the grandest industrial repair facilities ever created. Standing inside the mostly empty buildings, I get a sense of being alive in a time of giants, where a single steam engine wheel is taller than I am. Diesel engines are strong and practical, but they don't breath fire and steam. They are beasts of burden, not dragons.

We will never return to that time in history. There will be no modern-day Daenerys Targaryen showing up with three baby steam engines that will awe the world. The best we can hope for now is that these cathedrals will be saved, that the sweat, steel, and sparks they once contained will be kept alive in remembrances and history lessons.

What do you do with over 27 acres of repair shops, an old firehouse, a turntable, and tons of leftover steel all owned by the City of Albuquerque? There's a push to turn the shops into a transportation museum called the Wheels Museum, but such things depend greatly on finding funding.

In the meantime, location scouts for movies will continue to stumble across the shops. Their jaws will drop and moviegoers around the world will end up catching a glimpse of railroading history without even knowing it.

 

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