Historicizing the Industrial Life of the Mexican National Railroad’s General Workshops
by Michael K. Bess, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas
This post is adapted from the conference paper and presentation that the author developed for the 2016 meeting of T2M in Mexico City. Michael is an assistant professor at CIDE in Mexico, focused on the study of mobility and transport in Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His on-going work considers the role that institutions play in developing transportation infrastructure and how these spaces are policed. For more information on Michael’s work, visit his Academia.edu page. –ed
In Mexico, technological progress arrived on rails. During the long rule of the country’s strongman president, Porfirio Díaz, in the late nineteenth century, the federal government coordinated the construction of thousands of miles of railroads. The private sector and U.S. investment played a critical role in this work, connecting cities to coastal ports, and linking markets to major industrial and mining centers, like Cananea, in Sonora a northwestern state on the U.S.-Mexico border. Although resource extraction was a primary goal, poor and working-class Mexicans also embraced the railroad. Studies have shown that third-class passenger service remained in high demand during this time as people moved themselves and goods from one region to another. Likewise, railroads became a prominent foil where middle-class Mexicans and intellectuals debated the impact of modernization in the country’s newspapers. Poets described the experience and speed of traveling by rail to flight: “That subtle bird, upon its wings sustain, as it comes and goes, I come and go on the railroad.”
The opportunities for mobility that the railroad presented required considerable upkeep, however. From very early in this history, company managers and government officials invested in the creation of workshops in strategic parts of the country to ensure that resources for construction and repair were readily available. In Aguascalientes, a central state that is 420 kilometers (260 miles) northwest of Mexico City, the U.S.-owned Mexican Central Railroad decided to build its general workshops. The decision was strategic; the state was near multiple populations centers, including the cities of Guadalajara, León, and Zacatecas, and was also near several important trunk lines for the burgeoning rail network. From my conference paper, delivered at T2M in Mexico City, I noted that the facility quickly transformed the little provincial state capital.
These foreigners envisioned an industrial outpost in a place that had been better known for agricultural production, ranching, and silver mining. The facility would house managers and workers, include a school, church, baseball field, and a park for families. Along its perimeter, they planned to build offices for contractors, as well as a railway depot and ice house. In 1895, as the company drew up its blueprint for the yards, the city of Aguascalientes had a population that numbered 32,355. Less than a decade later, in 1900, as construction proceeded on the workshops, it reached 35,052 persons. By 1930, as the presence of the facilities had transformed Aguascalientes into a key site for the railroad industry, and employed nearly 4,000 people, the city’s population had grown to over 82,000.
The general workshops became an important cultural institution that transformed farmers and craftsmen into industrial workers. Before its arrival, the city of Aguascalientes and its surrounding areas were based on an agricultural economy that produced cattle, guava fruit, and other products. With the workshops, generations of fathers, sons, and brothers entered a new way of life linked closely to the modernizing forces underway in Mexico and other parts of the world. Construction broke ground in the 1890s, and the facility was fully operational in 1904, charged with not only repairing engines, but also building them for the domestic rail market. The general workshops also became a key provider of parts and equipment for other workshops that opened across Mexico in the first half of the twentieth century.
The operation was large and complex and beloved by many of its employees. By the mid-twentieth century, at its height, the workshop had three major divisions (wheelhouse, warehouse, station) and dozens of subdivisions that specialized in engineering, maintenance, logistics, and management. Most employees started as young men working as stevedores, loading and unloading train cars at the warehouse. After about two years, if they proved dependable (or had family help) they transitioned into other areas of the facility, trained by supervisors in the skills they needed. In the wheelhouse, which was considered the jewel of the facility, three shifts of laborers worked around the clock and could process a single engine within two to eight hours, depending on the job. By the 1920s, the foreign managers had been entirely replaced by Mexicans; then, in the 1930s, rank-and-file employees organized into a union, which was linked to the national labor movement underway across Mexico at that time. The union provided another place for career and personal development as workers entered local and national political positions within the organization. It also contributed to a sense of esprit de corps: laborers identified closely with the workshops and with their membership in the union. In oral histories collected in the early 2000s, retired personnel remembered with pride that the facility built and repaired its own steam engines. They also described a sense of disillusion when management in the 1960s transitioned to the use of imported diesel engines, eventually closing the fame wheelhouse and eliminating the construction department.
Over succeeding decades, the workshops experienced many of the same broader forces affecting mobility in Mexico as elsewhere. Increasingly, after the 1960s, motor bus travel became a prominent means of regional transportation for middle- and working-class people. Demand for the railroad dropped and government policies shifted away from heavy support of this technology. In the 1980s, the Mexican National Railways, then owner of the workshops, signed a deal with General Electric to build engines in Aguascalientes. Nevertheless, economic shocks and neoliberal policies pushed the workshops, first, to privatize, in the early 1990s, and later to be closed by the end of the decade. As the facility was closed gradually, managers assigned the remaining unionized personnel to other tasks around the city of Aguascalientes, including the construction of a motor road to the Nissan automotive plant. It symbolized the latest industrial transformation in the state as the local economy grew to depend on automobile manufacturing to drive growth. By the early 2000s, new plans were drawn up for the closed workshops. Today, the facility has been transformed into cultural and historical spaces with museums, parks, and sporting areas occupying the former industrial grounds. It has become a physical space of historical memory, where the community can reflect on the long history of industrialization that began over a century ago with the arrival of the railroad.