Route 66 and the Amarillo Helium Plant

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Aerial photo of the Amarillo Helium Plant, likely around the 1970s.



Route 66 and the Amarillo Helium Plant

The Amarillo Helium Plant was located on US Highway 66, or “Route 66.” When Route 66 opened in 1926, it became the shortest route from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast. The plant originally used trains to transport helium across the country, but it switched to trucks as highways developed.

Until the early 1900s, ships, trains, and wagons carried people and goods. Industrial plants often opened next to railroad lines or ports. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, fossil fuel production improved. At the same time, explorers across the world searched for new oil and gas. As new fuels became more available, so did machines that used them, such as trains and automobiles.

When deciding where to locate their new helium plant, the Bureau of Mines looked for a place that had easy access to road networks and helium supplies (fig. 4-1). The Amarillo location had many advantages. The property was very close to Cliffside Field, an abundant helium reserve. A system of gas pipelines provided a constant natural gas supply from Cliffside and other fields to plants in the Southwest. The Amarillo location was also near Route 66 and the Rock Island Railroad. This meant that helium coming from Cliffside connected Amarillo to other helium plants, military bases, and other locations throughout the country.

The helium industry created specialized tanks to move the gas safely and easily (fig. 4-2). Special tank cars carried helium on trains, and semitrailers with massive tanks carried it on highways. These incredible tank vehicles could carry more helium at a lower weight.

As cars and trucks gained popularity, new highway networks sprang up around the nation. Advanced transportation networks also helped the US military. Highways could help the military easily transport supplies and troops. Many states, including Texas, first established highway departments in 1917 to help with World War I. The 1917 plan for highways in Texas called for construction of State Highway 13, connecting Amarillo with Oklahoma. State Highway 13 was expanded and became Route 66 in 1926. This roadway was used to transport military troops and supplies during World War II. In 1954, President Eisenhower established the Interstate Highway System. One reason for establishing the system was to be more prepared for any future wars. Since the military used a great deal of helium, highways were especially important to the helium plant (fig. 4-3).

Highways shaped the helium industry in many ways. At first, railroads ran to loading docks at the helium plant. But by 1947, trucks were more popular, and the loading docks expanded and improved (fig. 4-4). A 1962 report from the Bureau of Mines explained that trucks were beneficial because they could make “rapid trips over relatively short distances.” Helium shipments in semitrailers increased throughout the 1960s thanks to highways like Route 66.