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KTWU Sunflower Journeys 1703B - Santa Fe Shops

Produced by... Scott Williams

Sunflower Journeys Photo
Topeka's railroad heritage comes alive
when looking at the history of the Santa Fe shops
Narrator: Take a drive though the Topeka neighborhood of Oakland and you will climb a large overpass. Below you will see a distinctive cluster of buildings historically refereed to as "the Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe shops," known today as the Topeka System Maintenance Terminal for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.

The shops are located on 120 acres northeast of downtown Topeka and surrounded by a network of railroad tracks. They have always been an important part of the city's history.

Bob Richmond, Historian: There was some kind of shop work going on before 1878, but 1878 was the real beginning of the shops. Because that抯 when they were able to buy the old King Bridgeworks. Those buildings just sat there. And they were sizable and so the Santa Fe was very happy to acquire them and the shops opened then as we know them in 1878.

Narrator: Nearly all of the original workforce are seen here in a photo taken in the first few years of the railroad shops.

Bob Richmond: In 1881, there was a sizable expansion and in 1882, the local press had a story about the fact that the shops had produced the complete passenger train, from locomotive to observation car. Which was pretty momentous news. And from that time forward, they built almost everything in the shops. The height of locomotive production would have been around the first World War. And then in the 20抯, we had a Depression for a time in the 20抯. And during those hard times, the shops, they didn抰 shut down. But production of everything diminished. And the same thing happened again in the 30抯. There were layoffs and they was just no need for them to have the kind of output they had, say in 1911, 1912. In 1921, before that brief Depression in the 20抯, there was something like 2,600 people employed in the shops.

Narrator: Historically, the workforce lived in the adjacent communities. Oakland to the east, Little Russia across the river to the north, and east Topeka to to the south east. And in these neighborhoods was an ethnic mix citizens.

Bob Richmond: Did the shops bring ethnic workers or did the ethnic workers seek the shop. It抯 kind of the chicken or the egg sort of situation. It抯 really hard to say, but certainly there were lots of German-Russians who lived in what was called 揕ittle Russia," that, a number of those lived across the river ... Those people walked across the railroad bridge to go to work.

Bob Richmond: The church was important in that it was a part of community. This was family-oriented business no matter how you looked at it. The people who lived there were part of the Santa Fe family. The ones in that area, the Oakland and just north of the river area, primarily were Catholics, went to Sacred Heart. Some of them went to St. Joseph抯, farther west. Then when the Mexican-American population increased, that抯 when Our Lady of Guadeloupe came in to being. At one time there was a Presbyterian Church on 4th Street which people called 搕he railroader抯 church."

Narrator: In addition to church involvement, workers also found recreational activities outside of the brick and limestone walls of the shops.

Bob Richmond: There were baseball teams. There was a football team. There were basketball teams. There was a Glee Club. Santa Fe Band started in 1924. Now granted, all of these kinds of things didn抰 involve just shop people. But shop people were involved in all of these things.
The Santa Fe was the chief underwriter of the Railroad YMCA. Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone. There were Swedish immigrants involved too and they had a Bible Study class for Swedes in Swedish. It抯 a real mix of backgrounds.

Bob Richmond: As railroading changed so did the shops, when the switch came to diesel, after World War II, primarily. They quit building steam locomotives, although they were continuing to use them and repair them.

Narrator: We caught up with one retired Topekan who made a career of working for the Santa Fe Railroad. His house was located close to the shops, so he could walk to work.

Francisco Delci: After I got out of the service I just came home. So I decided, you know, to stay here. I didn't want to go back to Arizona, it was so hot. I did all my own work, every day that I was supposed to. Didn't lose no time or nothing. Cause I had kids to feed. When I first started we was building 20 cars a day. So I used to drive rivets underneath the car. Drive the center plates, what they called the center plates. I did it for around 6 years, we built brand new cars. Twenty cars a day, I mean we got out 15 seconds to change a gun and go back in there.

Narrator: Changes in railroading always created a workplace where job security was a concern. In Francisco's 39 years of railroad work, there was always a threat of being laid off.

Francisco Delci: Got laid off work like 5 times. Because the work was slacked off, and they got back over again, got called back.

Narrator: Still, he found the work satisfying.

Francisco Delci: I enjoyed every bit of it I done for Santa Fe, I enjoyed it. You know, I'd do it all over again if I had to start all over again.

Narrator: Corporate powers threatened the continued existence of the facility in Topeka. But on December 3, 2003, BNSF announced that the company would consolidate all of its locomotive overhaul work at the Topeka Locomotive shop. Transfers were offered to some employees working at their facility in West Burlington, Iowa, which was downsized.

Keeping the engines inspected and bodywork fresh and new looking, for the time being at least, work continues as it has for over 135 years at the railroad shops in Topeka.

This transcript is from KTWU's Sunflower Journeys 2004 season.
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A production of:
KTWU Channel 11
Washburn University
Topeka, Ks. 66621
785-231-1111
journeys@washburn.edu

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Webpage last updated:   Wednesday, March 1, 2006