CRM Journal

Book Review

The Train Stops Here: New Mexico's Railway Legacy

By Marci L. Riskin. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005; 156 pp., illustrations, maps, appendices, index; cloth $39.95; paper $24.95.


The Train Stops Here cover

Open almost any book about railroads and you expect to read about trains, so finding one that explores "everything but the trains," as author Marci Riskin puts it, is intriguing indeed. An architect in Santa Fe who specializes in the adaptive reuse of historic structures, Riskin became interested in railroad structures about a decade ago when she prepared the "Railroad Depots of New Mexico" study for the state's highway department. That interest has blossomed into The Train Stops Here, a look through the windows of New Mexico's depots, shops, railroad hotels, and other assorted buildings at the role railroads have played in the state's growth and development. While this book is problematic in some respects, it nevertheless contains a wealth of information for students and aficionados of railroad, state, and southwestern history, and Riskin clearly demonstrates some of the benefits that can accrue from architectural archeology.

The book is organized into five parts. The first two attempt an explanation of the history of American railroading, its equipment, physical plant, and operations in only 37 pages, a task that proved too daunting. The third part deals with the preservation issues and opportunities of railroad buildings, especially depots. By far the most useful section of the book is a company-by-company examination of the state's surviving railroad structures, which is augmented by four appendices later.

Riskin is clearly enthusiastic about railroads and railroading, and particularly so about the buildings designed and built to serve the traveling public. Like many, she seems to think of railroad companies primarily as passenger carriers. Consequently, she sees railroads as being in decline (chapter 10 is entitled "Decline of the Railroad") although today's railroads, focused almost exclusively on freight, are healthier than ever, based on any economic or productivity yardstick. They have certainly changed in dramatic ways, but their problem is how to handle increasing traffic loads, not how to avoid withering away. Passenger service, now only a shadow of its former glory, is—or was—indeed personal and romantic, but Riskin's overall analysis suffers from making it the primary driving force of railroad history. "Railroading's Heyday" did not come to a close with the end of World War I, nor with the demolition of Albuquerque's Alvarado Hotel in 1970, even though the traveling public's switch to automobiles and airplanes during the intervening decades may have made it seem so at first glance.

In short, the first 10 chapters of The Train Stops Here will prove of limited use to the serious student of railroading, and some of the factual inaccuracies might derail those coming anew to the field. Context is certainly vital, so a brief, general overview of railroad history would have been more appropriate. It is unfortunate that Riskin did not intentionally limit her study to passenger transportation and infrastructure, since this is her strongest suit.

That being said, Riskin's book has a lot to recommend it. A detailed examination of New Mexico's surviving railroad buildings is filled with valuable information and illustrations. The only difficulty here is in its organization. Each chapter deals with one of five railroad systems in the state, although most no longer exist as such. The more complex systems that consist of several lines built or acquired at different times each receive a subchapter that covers the towns and cities in their geographical order along the line. This arrangement may work well for those familiar with the state, but it can be problematic and confusing for others.

Each section has a state map showing the rail lines, including now-abandoned ones, with the subchapter's line in bold, but no towns or railroad companies. Appendix 1 offers a large state map with a listing of surviving structures, but, amazingly, this map shows not railroad lines, but interstate highways.

Within each town section, Riskin does a very nice job of describing the surviving buildings and putting them into historical context. Although neither long nor excessively detailed, these descriptions are nonetheless evocative and often supported by photographs of buildings or important details. Riskin took many of these photographs, which with her text show a genuine sensitivity to architectural styles and the structures' importance. As might be expected, depots are the most frequently encountered buildings, but surviving shop facilities, dormitories for train crews, freight stations, and even a coal tipple or two are represented. Of particular interest are the small depots designed and built so that they could be moved on flatcars when the need arose. Chapter 13 on the Santa Fe also includes delightful material on the unique Harvey House hotels and restaurants that were adjacent to Santa Fe depots in major towns and cities and so much a part of that railroad's history.

Curiously, Riskin did not use the current names for most of the carriers, choosing instead to identify them with names one or two generations old. For instance, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, the state's primary system, has been a part of the BNSF Railway (formerly Burlington Northern and Santa Fe) since 1996. Several branch lines once part of the Santa Fe are now independent short lines, but she dealt with those, along with some now-abandoned branches, in the Santa Fe chapter. The Southern Pacific and the Colorado and Southern railroads each have their own chapter, even though they are now part of the Union Pacific and BNSF, respectively. The Denver and Rio Grande (Western) is also part of the Union Pacific, but the D&RGW's lines in New Mexico, which were all narrow gauge, had long been abandoned by the time of its merger into UP, so this anachronism makes sense. Of the railroads listed in chapters 13 through 17, only the Texas-New Mexico Railway still operates by that name.

The Train Stops Here is a unique approach to the study of railroad infrastructure. Every state would be well served by a similar work. Railroad buildings evolved into distinctive structures that are, for the most part, immediately recognizable as components of a vital industry that did much to shape America, even if they are now miles from the nearest track or have been converted into restaurants, museums, offices, or private homes. Riskin clearly appreciates the value of preserving this heritage. The book's organizational oddities, unlabeled maps, and problematic early chapters are serious drawbacks, but the reader who invests the effort and focuses on the last two parts will be rewarded with a comprehensive appreciation of the distinctive southwestern flavor of these utilitarian, but uncommonly appealing, structures.

J. Lawrence Lee
Historic American Engineering Record