Table of Contents
- The Amarillo Helium Plant - Introduction
- National Defense and the Aerospace Industry
- Employee Work and Life
- Helium Production and Technology
- Route 66 and the Amarillo Helium Plant
The Amarillo Helium Plant employed more and more people between 1929 and 1968. Jobs at the local helium plant helped Amarillo’s economy grow. Other helium facilities in the area added to this trend. For example, the nearby Cliffside Natural Gas Field provided new jobs, and the Exell Helium Plant added even more when it opened in 1943. The city of Amarillo grew as a result. Amarillo became more important as a regional commercial hub. New houses, schools, and fire stations sprung up. A former employee at the Amarillo Helium Plant named C. F. David described the growth in an interview in 1998:
Then all of a sudden it became known that we were going to have a new high school when they knew that the plant was coming in. The federal government made certain stipulations . . . for the plant to be built there. We had to have paved streets. We had to have more houses. We had to have a new high school. We had to have a fire truck. The city changed completely.
New jobs at the helium plant also changed the character of Amarillo. Before the helium plant opened in 1930, most jobs in Amarillo related to farming or ranching. Some jobs also related to oil and natural gas, which were discovered nearby between 1918 and 1921. The helium plant brought more technical and professional jobs. Scientists and engineers moved to Amarillo from across the nation. Some employees brought new cultures and religions to Amarillo. The population became more diverse. Women also found jobs at the plant (fig. 2-1). Working together to create helium helped build community. Many employees remember their work at the Amarillo Helium Plant with a sense of pride.
The complex helium process required many different types of jobs. Jobs at the helium plant ranged from technical professions to manual labor. Some examples of jobs at the Amarillo Helium Plant are listed and illustrated in the photo gallery below.
Learn More! One known draftsman was named Charles Colarelli. Colarelli demonstrates the cultural diversity that the plant brought to Amarillo. Census records suggest that Colarelli was born in Colorado around 1938 to an Italian-immigrant gold miner. He moved to Amarillo to work at the helium plant around 1957. In 1940, the census showed about 10 Italian Americans living in Amarillo. Jobs at the helium plant helped the Italian community and other immigrant communities grow.
Contributions of Women and Minorities
From the 1930s through the 1950s, most jobs at the Amarillo Helium Plant went to white men. The same was true for most government jobs across the nation at the time. Yet the plant also hired women and minorities for some important jobs. During World War II, most young men went overseas to fight. Labor shortages led the government and industry to seek more diverse workers. The US government encouraged hiring workers deemed physically “unfit” for military service. A government document recommended different jobs for people with different abilities. It cited the helium plant as a source of many types of jobs for people with physical disabilities. Types of jobs listed included engineers, mechanics, stillmen, foremen, superintendents, and laborers. Dr. Clifford Seibel wrote about their contributions in his 1968 book, Helium: Child of the Sun:
When difficulties arose in getting special copper pipe bends, handicapped men classified 4-F [“unfit for military service”] were trained to do the work in our own plant yard. Unwilling to trust the assembly of the separation equipment to unfamiliar hands, U. G. Hester, a helium plant foreman with many years of experience, collected a crew and took over that assignment with phenomenal success. Under his close supervision the Exell plant came through a test period with flying colors. This same fine service was also provided for the three additional wartime plants.
Learn More! Read about the contributions of individuals with physical disabilities during World War II in “4-F: The Forgotten Unfit of the American Military” by Tiffany Leigh Smith, from Texas Woman’s University.
In many places, women also helped meet wartime labor needs. The original design for the Amarillo Helium Plant included women’s locker rooms, just in case women were hired. However, no documents show women actually working at the Amarillo Helium Plant during World War II. Nearby, though, Amarillo Foundry hired women during World War II. These women helped build low-temperature equipment for the Amarillo Helium Plant. Dr. Clifford Seibel praised these women in his 1968 book:
When some eastern fabricators of copper equipment were “too busy to be bothered,” I turned in desperation to a superbly equipped local machine shop. With technical know-how and supervision from our own small force, Lowell Stapf--and his Amarillo Machine Shop and Foundry crews, augmented by some 30 women substituting for experienced drill press and light machine operators produced three-quarters of a million dollars’ worth of low-temperature equipment equal or superior to the best ever obtained from any source.
By the 1950s, women began working at the Amarillo Helium Plant. At first, most women worked in administration. The first documented woman employee was a mail clerk hired around 1951. Photos of the administrative offices at the plant from the 1950s also show a number of women. At least one additional woman, named Elizabeth Tucker, worked at the plant’s downtown office in the 1950s. Tucker was a trained stenographer who worked for the soil conservation office prior to the helium plant. Although married, Tucker is not documented as having children, which would have made it more socially acceptable for her to work in an era where social expectations often confined women to the home.
Women also gradually gained jobs outside the administrative office. Oral histories note women in various roles. These include two women working on the shipping docks, a woman draftsman, and several women in a library at the plant. Amarillo City Directories from the 1950s and 1960s list a few women working at the plant. They include Mrs. Beulah I. Carter and Mrs. Louise B. Stewart. Carter worked as a “caretaker” at the plant around 1960, and Stewart worked as a technician around 1960. Both had grown children, giving them the ability to work outside the home in an era with limited childcare.
The first woman scientist at the Amarillo Helium Plant, a chemist named Beverly Dalton Briggs, arrived in 1961. Briggs went on to supervise the US Army’s efforts to remove landmines. When she died in 2001, her obituary noted her humanitarian efforts.
A woman mathematician named Marilyn Johnson came to the Amarillo Helium Plant in 1966. Johnson brought early understanding of computers to the plant. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Johnson gained trust and authority. She gained access to all parts of the plant, including the Cliffside Natural Gas Field. She eventually rose to the position of “Programmer Analyst” and introduced the “Fortran” computer program at the plant. Johnson noted that the Amarillo plant was more accepting of women than other workplaces at the time.
Over the years, women in the administrative office also received promotions. By the 1970s, women held positions as accountants and purchasing agents. By the 1980s, women held administrative roles at all levels (fig. 2-12).
The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s also brought some limited racial and ethnic diversity to the plant. Two Chinese American chemists arrived at the plant in the 1960s. According to oral histories, these men were father and son. Although their first names are not known, their last names are remembered as “Chang.” A Mexican American petroleum engineer named Antonio “Tony” Salazar came to the plant in the 1970s. By the 1980s Salazar rose to the position of Head of Resources at the plant. Salazar also was active in the Amarillo community, volunteering as a youth sports coach and serving as president of the Amarillo Catholic School Board. An African American chemist also reportedly was hired in the 1980s, although his name also remains undocumented. A Mexican American petroleum engineer came to the plant in the 1980s as well, though his name also is lost to history.
Learn More! Did you know that one of the leading helium researchers today is African American? Learn more about physicist Walter E. Massey from Brown University.
For many employees, the helium plant formed the core of their community. Some employees even lived in the government housing “camp” at the nearby Exell Helium Plant (fig. 2-13). The Exell housing camp opened in 1942 with 75 houses and garages. The camp continued to house Excell and Amarillo employees until around 1978. The Amarillo employees took a bus from the Exell camp to the Amarillo plant each day. The Exell camp included a school and sports facilities, so the children of many helium employees grew up together. During the holiday season, Amarillo and Exell camp families held a joint gathering where a Santa handed out toys for the children. Other plant employees lived in private housing in Amarillo. During World War II, buses and flatbed trucks fitted with seats would transport some workers to the plant from a garage on West 6th Street in downtown Amarillo. As Dr. Seibel described in his 1968 book:
The transportation of workmen to and from Amarillo…was a problem. With tires and gasoline rationed, workmen required assurance of the necessary transportation before signing for work. Fortunately, our priority rating was high enough to obtain two 72-passenger semitrailer buses and tractor trucks to haul them.
Employees also organized sports for recreation at the plant. The plant originally included tennis courts. Employees at the plant also created a softball team around the 1950s. Other nearby helium plants also had their own team, as did the downtown Amarillo office, and the teams would play one another. The Bivens Helium Plant, located about 35 miles west of Amarillo, managed a golf course for the employees free of charge. Amarillo employees helped the Bivens employees maintain it. Employees from the Amarillo Helium Plant also formed bowling teams in the 1960s and 1970s.
Employees at the Amarillo Helium Plant also held other social gatherings and celebrations. Informal “get-togethers” in the Recreation Hall often included potluck meals with spouses and children (fig. 2-14). Outdoor picnics were another form of community gathering for employees (fig. 2-15). Overall, a sense of pride characterized life at the helium plant. Dr. Seibel expressed this feeling in an interview with the Amarillo Globe Times when he retired in 1959, stating:
I couldn’t leave without doing a lot of bragging about the organization – its loyalty, sustained competence, imaginative thinking and the ability to put that thinking into practice. There’s not a group in the government that can touch them. The public, government and industry can be very proud of them.
Learn more about the Helium Production Process and Technology used at the Amarillo Helium Plant.
Click on any image to view the photo gallery.
Administration: Administrative staff worked in the plant’s office. They helped keep the plant organized. Administrative employees included clerks, accountants (fig. 2-2), and managers. When the plant was constructed, it included an administrative building. As the plant grew, the office became very crowded. From around 1957 to around 1962, some administrative staff also worked in downtown Amarillo. The downtown office was in the historic Barfield Building at 600 South Polk Street. Figure 2-2. Photo of the accounting office at the plant, likely around 1955. Source: US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Mines, “Region VI: Helium Plants Book II” (n.p., n.d.), from the TxDOT Time Capsule Event, Amarillo, 2018, File MULT.TCE.DOC.1950s0000.Book II.