By rail, road, and air: How transportation helped make Amarillo

Local News

AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — There is a history woven deep in the roots of Amarillo. It isn’t hiding, nor is it silent. It roars around us and tells its story every day. You have to listen.

It rumbles in the rhythmic clicking of trains on the tracks. It vrooms as cars pass by. It hums in the whirring of airplanes. It’s what helped establish is the city as a hub. It is the history of transportation in Amarillo.

By Rail:

Long before people were getting their kicks on Route 66, traveling by rail was the mode of transportation across the country, and Amarillo would not be Amarillo without the rail industry.

“It’s not just here in large part due to the railroad. It’s here because of the railroad,” said Bob Roth, the vice president and secretary for the Amarillo Railroad Museum. “If you look back in history, you know, the first people that came here, there wasn’t a place to go. The cattlemen … had to go down to Colorado City to get the cattle to market. They drove the cattle up to Dodge City, Kansas to ship them out on the railhead.”

The railroads were heading toward our neck of the woods. First headed toward the towns of Panhandle and Washburn, and eventually making their way into Amarillo.

According to the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce, the first Fort Worth & Denver City passenger train arrived in Amarillo in March of 1888 from Clarendon.

“The railroad, as the panhandle developed, they ship millions of head of cattle out of the panhandle. But in the early years, they found that there was such a need for goods here in the panhandle. They would take those stock cars and they weren’t bringing them back to your empty, they were bringing them back loaded with goods for the merchants, the stores, things that people needed,” said Roth.

With all of the passenger and cargo traffic Amarillo had, it also needed a place to wrangle it into one. Enter the Santa Fe Depot downtown.

“The depot originally was built here to service as a hub for the Panhandle of Texas,” said Jerry Danforth, the director of facilities and capital projects at the City of Amarillo. “It was a major component of both passenger traffic, commercial freight, and private freight.”

Danforth calls the depot and the railroad the “original UPS.”

“That was the way both commercial freight and private freight was moved in and out of Amarillo,” Danforth said. “You’ve got to keep in mind interstates didn’t exist. Even state highways didn’t exist at the time. So it was a critical part of the infrastructure in the development in the Panhandle of Texas. A lot of people are, obviously, aware of the impact of beef across the United States. At one time, almost 80% of all beef consumed in the United States came out of Amarillo, Texas. Obviously, we weren’t driving cattle all the way to Chicago. So the railroad was a key component of that, bringing buyers and sellers together here to be able to develop that market.”

WATCH | See Jerry Danforth take us on a tour of the historic Santa Fe Depot below:

Roth said rail travel continued to grow in Amarillo until around the 1950s. He said as time progresses, businesses still needed rail service, but at the same time, passenger was declining, with its peak at around 1929.

“Right before the Great Depression was a depression. People didn’t have money, and so they couldn’t go places. So ridership on the passenger train just went way down. The railroad still kept service, but it was World War II brought a huge spike, but it never, my understanding, never reached the peak that it had been at,” said Roth.

Roth said after WWII, troops came home, got discharged, people started getting good jobs paying good money, and then they started buying cars.

“When Eisenhower got into office, you know, he authorized the construction of Interstate Highways, and people started driving places; Route 66 in the 50s, and so passenger ridership was in a steady decline,” said Roth. 

That trend continued to decline through the 1960s.

Roth said the nail in the coffin was the mail. Congress had recognized the importance of the railroads, so it authorized every rail route as a postal route.

“They [the Postal Service] did a study in the mid-1960s, and saw that they could fly first class mail for the same cost as what they were spending on the trains,” said Roth. “When they realize that, they made a decision to switch the mail, first-class mail, from train to air, having it shipped by air … That put the nail in the coffin on passenger service.”

Roth said a lot of the railroads started falling to abandon passenger service that they had because ridership had been going down. A lot of the passenger trains suddenly, with the loss of passenger service, were no longer making money. 

“So here in Amarillo, for example, we had like I said, we had passenger connections on all three railroads. Well, September 11, that infamous day, 1967. That was the last run of the Texas Zephyr which ran between Fort Worth and Denver. So that was our first passenger train we lost. Two months later, November 11, 1967, we lost the Cherokee, which was the last passenger train running on the Rock Island line between Memphis and Tucumcari. The Santa Fe they kept running their service on the Santa Fe, the San Francisco Chief, up until Amtrak took over.”

Amarillo’s last passenger train was May 1, 1971.

Though passenger service no longer operates out of Amarillo, it continues to be a freight hub for BNSF.

“Most of the towns and cities in the panhandle owe their existence to the coming of the railroad … it’s [the railroad] just been a constant evolution, and there’s no telling what the future is going to hold,” said Roth.

By Road:

Well it winds from Chicago to L.A

More than 2,000 miles all the way

Get your kicks on Route 66

Chuck Berry
“Route 66”

And kicks did people get on Route 66.

Dubbed the “Mother Road,” Route 66 was established on November 11, 1926, and spans 2,448 miles across the United States.

“The reason that Route 66 was created was they [the country] … really didn’t have a real clear way to get to the west. I mean, they had trains, but … they didn’t have like a highway,” said Jim Livingston, a local artist and founder of I Am Route 66 Visitor Center & Gallery.

“When WWII ends and you got these guys coming back with a little jingle in their pocket, and Hollywood was great and big … all of a sudden everybody wanted to take a vacation trip out to Hollywood and Route 66 became the main corridor work and go on vacations,” said Livingston.

178 miles of that corridor crosses through the Texas Panhandle and the Yellow City.

“Route 66 brought a lot more to the sleepy little town that was Amarillo than would have been here if it wasn’t for Route 66,” said Livingston.

According to the Amarillo Convention & Visitors Council, Route 66 was one of the first residential and business districts in Amarillo.

People traveled from across the country to see what was offered on the route, opening up Amarillo to the culture of the country and the world.

Livingston said that is what did and continues to make Route 66 special to this day.

“When we have the world coming through Amarillo, just because of Route 66, I mean we also have the interstate system, but that’s not what brings people from Czechoslovakia, and France, and Spain,” said Livingston. “Those people are coming because they’re traveling Route 66, and we’re right there in the heart of it.”

The “heart of it” is not too far off. The midpoint of Route 66 is only around 50 miles to the west of Amarillo, in Adrian.

In Adrian is the Midpoint Cafe. It was previously owned by Fran Hauser, who just happened to be the inspiration for the character in Disney’s “Cars”.

Hauser is not the only local Route 66 inspiration in the movie. Ramone’s “House of Body Art” is a replica of the U-Drop Inn in Shamrock, and Luigi’s tilting tower of tires mimics the Leaning Tower of Britten outside of Groom.

Livingston said though the route is more than 2,400 miles long, travelers take the time to see and do more in each stop.

“There’s so much to see and do that you might want to drive 200 miles and stop, and 200 miles and stop, or 100 miles and stop. It takes about 20 days when you’re doing that to do all of the route,” said Livingston. “So what happens is a lot of people will take it in bites, and because we’re right in the middle it’s a great place to start off, and because we also have Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport, you know. Not only do people fly into Chicago and travel, but they also fly into here and travel, you know, if they can only do two or three days.”

In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, making way for the 47,800-mile Interstate Highway System, including I-40 which, for the most part, paralleled Route 66 in the panhandle.

“When you see the Route 66 corridor, which is essentially the boulevard and then down the middle of downtown, and then, you know, and down 6th Street, that died,” said Livingston. “What happened was the businesses moved south to the Interstate, and the whole area began to really build up.”

“So many cities didn’t make the move to the interstate. and they just folded up,” said Livingston. “I think [cities] they were stunned. They [travallers] no longer had to stop at the red lights to end, you know, you stop at the red lights, you know, you stop at the red lights and you realize you got to go to the bathroom or you realize, ‘Oh, I’m hungry or whatever. And just being forced to stop creates a lot of commerce and industry, and that didn’t happen. I think people were really shocked at the in those towns that they didn’t have the business.”

Though there are plenty of now ghost towns along Route 66, Amarillo did not suffer the same fate.

“We’re really lucky that we didn’t do that,” said Livingston. “We actually adapted and we thrived for growing because of the interstate.”

Route 66 and its contributions to the city are remembered in the Route 66 Historical District on 6th Street. It features a mile of art galleries, stores, restaurants, bars, and history.

“That’s the most important thing is the only way that Route 66 is gonna stay alive is if we remember it if we travel it. So like I said if you’ve got just a day go over to Shamrock,” said Livingston. “Let’s keep Route 66 alive. Let’s keep traveling.”

By Air:

On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright became known as aviation pioneers who achieved the first powered, sustained, and controlled airplane flight. Since that moment, the national interest in aviation took off, including in Amarillo.

Bivins Field, the first airfield in Amarillo, was established in 1919. It was located at Julian Blvd. and Travis, and was a part of four runways that came together at 15th and Crockett.

“It was good for several years until that edition was planted for city development,” said Ann Scamahorn with the Texas Air and Space Museum in Amarillo. “At that point, Bivins Field was closed, and the City of Amarillo became aware that they needed a municipal airport.”

So the city held a bond election for $125,000. Its passing enabled them to purchase a lot of land in the East Ridge addition.

With the newly built airport came the need for an airport manager. The competition was between Otis Williams and Harold English.

“Otis Williams got the job,” said Scamahorn. “His [English] feelings were hurt, and he came out and purchased land on the way to Panhandle.”

English’s airfield, dubbed English Field, was located on Highway 60, just to the north of where Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport sits today.

Scamahorn said people thought it was absurd that English would purchase land that far out of town, but it turned out to besetting Amarillo’s future in aviation.

At the time English was starting his airfield, the beginnings of commercial air traffic were emerging.

“So we begin to have very early airlines that are emerging, and here Amarillo has emerged as an airport. The anticipation was that these airlines would have passenger service to Municipal,” said Scamahorn.

But English and his brother-in-law, Thomas Oxnard, had financial connections to what Scamahorn said was a “financial wizard” in New York City.

“These airlines flew right over Municipal and landed [at Eglish Field]. The only thing that Municipal could find out was the services are better at English Field,” said Scamahorn.

Eventually, Municipal closed because there was no commercial traffic.

WATCH: Did you know Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Presidents JFK and Eisenhower all made appearances in Amarillo via airplane? Hear Scamahorn discuss that below:

“We have these small airlines beginning to start, and we have Western Express and several other airlines,” said Scamahorn. “As these mergers came and went, and these passenger lines began to grow, there eventually became the merger that would become Trans World Airlines (TWA) … Trans World Airlines made major stops right here in Amarillo.”

In 1942, Amarillo Army Air Field was activated and was adjacent to English Field.

The Texas State Historical Association said the field, one of the largest installations in the Western Technical Training Command, was established for the training of aircrew and ground mechanics to service B-17 aircraft. 

The field operated until 1946 when it was closed, but a breath of life was given to it in 1951 when it was reactivated as Amarillo Air Force Base.

“Having being a Strategic Air Command base, we flew B-52s around the periphery of these United States,” said Scamahorn. “To fly B-52s, you need a long, solid runway. Consequently, our runway is about three miles long, and it’s 12 feet deep of reinforced concrete. And I know from the airport office, that there is not … an aircraft in the world that we cannot handle on this runway. Consequently, we have solid commercial traffic. We have lots of military traffic for touch and goes from Lawton, from Shepherd, from Clovis, lots of C-130s. It’s quite an airshow all the time.”

Because of that runway, Amarillo also became a backup airport for NASA’s space shuttle.

“In the occasions when the shuttle would land in California and have to get back to Florida and was weathered out of a military base, it could just land here,” said Scamahorn. “That happened two times in the last two years that the shuttle was flying.”

According to the TSHA, by 1964 the United States Department of Defense had decided to close the base. The last class was graduated on December 11, 1968, and the base was deactivated on December 31, 1968.

After, the City of Amarillo took control of part of the land AAFB sat on and built Amarillo International Airport, moving operations from Amarillo Air Terminal.

Amarillo and the panhandle’s aviation history has also expanded to space.

  • Rick Husband was an Amarillo High School grad. He and the rest of the Space Shuttle Columbia crew were killed as their shuttle disintegrated during reentry in 2003. Amarillo International was renamed after him the same year.
  • Paul Lockhart, a Tascosa grad, flew two shuttle missions.
  • Holly Ridings, a Tascosa grad, was named the first woman to be chief flight director at NASA.
  • Edgar Mitchell, born in Hereford, walked on the moon.
  • Alan Bean, born in Wheeler, walked on the moon.
  • John Aaron, born in Wellington, was credited with saving Apollo 12 when it was struck by lightning soon after launch and assisted with the rescue and recovery effort of Apollo 13.

“We continue to contribute, and it started out just with the pioneers who came here and said, ‘Let’s fly,'” said Scamahorn.


You can hear more about our transportation history in depth by visiting our local resources:

Amarillo Railroad Museum

Texas Air & Space Museum 

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