Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Located in the center of the Texas Panhandle, Amarillo, with a population of almost 175,000 in 2000, straddles the Potter and Randall county line and serves as the seat of government for Potter County. The population is 77 percent white, 15 percent Latino, 6 percent African American, and a small percentage of other groups. It is a marketing point for cattle, wheat, corn, sorghum, natural gas, oil, and helium. Amarillo is a crossroads and has served that function throughout its history.

When the Fort Worth and Denver Railway, after a delay during the depression of the 1870s, resumed its northwestward march into the Texas Panhandle, James T. Berry, a real estate promoter, led a group of merchants from Colorado City to establish a new town site along the railroad route. In 1887 they laid out a grid of streets near Amarillo Lake, also known as Wild Horse Lake. At first called Oneida, the town's name was soon changed to Amarillo, which means "yellow" in Spanish. Supposedly, Spanish shepherds or traders had previously named the area for an abundance of yellow flowers or perhaps for the yellow soil of the creek banks. Local cowboys, having been promised a town lot by Berry, cast the decisive votes for Amarillo as the new county seat on August 30, 1887. This political designation, along with the railroad and the supply of water, gave Amarillo the necessities of life.

The railroad arrived in 1887, bringing merchants, cattle buyers, and settlers. By 1890 Amarillo was one of the world's busiest cattleshipping points. The town site lay on low ground, however, and after soaking rains in the spring of 1889 the town was moved to a higher location established by rancher Henry B. Sanborn and barbed wire–fencing magnate Joseph F. Glidden. The railroad opened a second depot, and voters transferred the county seat in 1893. Citizens incorporated the town in 1899 and established a council-manager form of city government in 1913, a system used to the present day.

Amarillo continued to grow. Three more rail lines had arrived by 1903. In the first decade of the twentieth century Amarillo acquired a hospital, an independent school district, an electric service, a trolley system, a public library, and a rowdy bowery. Although the population reached 9,957 in 1910, it was still a raw town, as Mary H. Turner of Chicago observed in 1902. Men spoke only about the cattle business; there were no sidewalks and no trees; rattlesnakes sunned themselves on the small golf course; and a black bull wandering the streets opened home fence gates in order to eat the planted flowers.

Oil explorers found natural gas near Amarillo in 1918 and petroleum in 1921. The nearby Cliffside gas field, with its high natural helium content, began producing in 1927 and resulted in the construction of a federal government helium plant four miles west of town. The government produced the inert gas until 1970, when an excess of helium in the nation made production unnecessary. Amarillo still bills itself as the "Helium Capital of the World." After the dust storms and poverty of the Great Depression, World War II brought economic relief in 1942 with the opening of the Amarillo Army Air Force Field for training pilots and the nearby Pantex Ordnance Plant for producing bombs. The airfield closed in 1946, reopened in 1951, and then closed again in 1968. The federal government converted the Pantex plant in 1951 to the production and deconstruction of chemical and nuclear explosives. Fears about radioactive poisoning and reports of unsafe environmental conditions have resulted in occasional protests and have left a shadow of concern that remains to the present time. Still, the Pantex plant was Amarillo's largest employer, and there has been relatively little pressure on Pantex to prioritize environmental protection.

After a decline in population of 8 percent following the closing of the airfield, Amarillo's population had rebounded to 149,230 by 1980. In 1971 the city took over a part of the airfield for an airport, which is now served by six passenger airlines, and Interstates 40 and 27 now traverse the city, dividing it into quarters. Natural gas, petroleum, cattle, agriculture, and transportation remain Amarillo's main economic supports.

David G. McComb Colorado State University

Henderson, H. Allen. "Amarillo, Texas." In The New Handbook of Texas, edited by Ron Tyler. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1996: 1: 140–42.

Key, Della Tyler. In the Cattle Country: History of Potter County. Amarillo: Tyler-Berkley, 1961.

Price, B. Byron, and Frederick W. Rathjen. The Golden Spread. Northridge CA: Windsor Publications, 1986.

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