A living link to history
on November 3, 2009
He wore a red San Francisco 49ers polo shirt and a pair of dark brown slacks. His gold-framed glasses rested on the nose of his wrinkled face. He smiled as he glanced over a picture from the past.
Joe Meneghelli, 89, has seen wars, felt earthquakes, and watched the evolution of the city of Richmond over the years. Born and raised in the city, Meneghelli’s parents owned a grocery store there. When he graduated from high school, instead of working at the store, he went to work for the Pullman Company.
One of the largest and best equipped passenger railroad car repair shops in the west, the Pullman Company Richmond shop was one of only six in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. The shop employed 450 employees to refurbish about six Pullman cars a week, or more than 350 cars a year. Railroad cars wore out, like automobiles, houses, or anything else. Every two years or so, passenger cars had to be brought into the shop to be refurbished.
The building is still at 350 Carlson Blvd in Richmond today but the shop now sells an assortment of carpets. Tradeway Carpet Company owns the three-story building and the former refurbishing shop, is now a carpet store that sells overrun, excess inventory, seconds, and off-colored carpets. Still, outside the building, you can’t help but notice a sign of years past: the railroad tracks that run through the concrete.
Because he graduated from high school early, Joe Meneghelli was only 17 years old when he started working at the shop in 1937. He was the shop’s office boy and well known throughout the shop.
“I was lucky to get this job,” Meneghelli said. “I ran the monograph machine, checked the records and ran errands. Making 60 dollars a month was not bad for me.”
In the early 1900’s the Pullman Company needed a repair shop in California to serve the fast-growing population. Richmond was chosen because the western terminus of the Santa Fe Railroad was there, and because the city was also on the main line of the Southern Pacific.
In the building behind the iron fence on Carlson Boulevard, the Pullman employees were employed seasonally and they did everything that was necessary to make Pullman cars look new. The company employed blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, seamstresses, upholsterers, mechanics, dyers, cleaners, and locksmiths, according to the History of Richmond.
Work was scarce during the 1930s. According to Meneghelli, a lot of the shop’s workers would get laid off in the summer but would always come back when the work was available. Although racism existed, Meneghelli said it was not a factor that he noticed in the day-to-day operations of the shop. African Americans, Caucasians and Italians all worked together, In fact, racial division of labor did not exist among the different ethnic groups, Meneghelli said.
“There wasn’t any problems and to me, everybody was agreeable to working,” Meneghelli said. “
In 1939, Meneghelli left Pullman to help his parents with the family’s grocery store. When he left he was making 90 dollars a month, much more than he would make at the grocery store. But he recognized that his family needed him.
“My folks didn’t ever say it but I knew they needed me,” Meneghelli said. “My older brother worked at the store but things started picking up and I could tell they needed the help so I left. I started back at the store.”
According to Meneghelli, the Pullman shop closed around 1960 because Santa Fe began to come out with faster cars. A trip that would have taken four days on the Pullman trains only took two or three days with the Santa Fe’s new cars.
Meneghelli went on to work for his family’s grocery store until he was drafted in 1943. The store closed in 1964 and he went to work as a custodian for the Richmond Unified School District.
Today, Meneghelli spends his time planning his high school reunion, working out every morning and playing cards with some of his old friends. Although he did not keep in contact with co-workers from the Pullman shop, Meneghelli still smiles when he talks about his time working there.
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