Amarillo, commercial center of the Texas Panhandle, is in southern Potter County and extends into Randall County. When the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway began building across the Panhandle in 1887, a group of Colorado City merchants chose the site to establish stores. In April 1887 J. T. Berry arrived from Abilene to plat the new town. He chose a well-watered section of school land, located along the FW&DC right-of-way in Potter County, which contained a large playa known as Amarillo, or Wild Horse, Lake.
Berry and the Colorado City merchants sought to make their new townsite the Potter county seat and the region's main trade center. Since most of the qualified voters were LX Ranch employees, Berry enlisted the ranchers' support by promising each cowhand a business lot and residence lot in the new town if it should be chosen county seat. On August 30, 1887, Berry's townsite was elected for that honor. The settlement was originally called Oneida but was by majority consent renamed Amarillo after the nearby lake and creek. These natural features had been named by New Mexican traders and pastores, probably for the yellow soil along the creek banks or the yellow wildflowers that were abundant during the spring and summer. Charles F. Rudolph, editor of the Tascosa Pioneer, blamed the FW&DC employees for ignoring the word's Spanish pronunciation; in 1888 he prophetically stated, "Never again will it be Ah-mah-ree-yoh." Most of the town's first houses were painted yellow in commemoration of the name change.
The railroad arrived shortly after the county election, and by October 1887 freight service was made available. Amarillo boomed as a cattle-marketing center. Holding grounds, complete with pens, were built near the tracks to corral the numerous herds that came from ranches in the Panhandle, South Plains, and eastern New Mexico for shipment. A post office was established in 1887 with Robert M. Moore as postmaster. George S. Berry soon replaced Moore, and the office was moved to Berry's real estate office nearby. By the spring of 1888 the patent to Berry's townsite had been obtained. Eight other men, including William Buford Plemons, John Hollicott, and Warren W. Wetzel, held equal interest in it. After the passenger station and freight depot were built near the FW&DC tracks, people from nearby townsites began moving to Amarillo. H. T. (Tuck) Cornelius, formerly of Jacksboro, operated the town's first livery stable. His father, Dr. J. C. Cornelius, was the first physician in Amarillo, and on June 18, 1888, Tuck's daughter Mayvi became the first child born in Amarillo. Meanwhile a lumberyard and a twenty-five-room hotel were established, and H. H. Brookes began publication of the town's first weekly newspaper, the Amarillo Champion, on May 17, 1888. Bonds were voted for a two-story brick courthouse to replace the small frame building and for Amarillo's first school. On May 29 town lots were sold to the public by auction. People were brought in by excursion trains. Most of the lots sold for $50 to $100 each.
Although Berry's cowtown seemed to be well established, Henry B. Sanborn, part owner of the Frying Pan Ranch, argued that Berry's site was on low ground that would flood during rainstorms. Sanborn and his partner, Joseph F. Glidden, began buying land to the east to move Amarillo out of its "mudhole." On June 19, 1888, they purchased four sections and offered to trade lots in the new location for those in the original site and contribute to the expense of moving buildings. Sanborn's enticements gradually won over people like Tuck Cornelius and H. H. Brookes, who moved their businesses to Polk Street in the new commercial district. Sanborn erected the elegant, forty-room Amarillo Hotel, which became the town's social center and the unofficial headquarters of area cattle buyers. He also donated a half-block for Amarillo's first union church. In the spring of 1889, when heavy rains almost flooded "Old Town," the railroad embankment prevented effective drainage and prompted more people to move to Sanborn's higher location. Despite a successful lawsuit filed against Sanborn by the Murphy-Thomason-Wisner interests over ownership of block 88, even the county and city officials eventually joined the cattlemen's project; by 1890 the town's nucleus was one mile east at the city's Glidden and Sanborn addition. That year the First National Bank opened for business, and the three Wolfin brothers from Gainesville established a mercantile store. In 1891 Phillip H. Seewald moved from Tascosa and opened a jewelry store. The depot and courthouse remained at the old site, since the law decreed that they could not be moved until five years after the 1887 election. In 1893 another county-seat election officially transferred the title to Sanborn's town, and the records were housed in a newer building there. In the meantime the FW&DC had installed a second depot at the Polk Street crossing for the convenience of passengers. By 1894 Amarillo had three newspapers: H. H. Brookes's Livestock Champion, Frank Cates and A. R. Rankin's Amarillo Northwest, and J. L. Caldwell's Amarillo Weekly News. Ellwood Park, the first of Amarillo's many city parks, was established in the 1890s. Three churches were constructed during the decade, and other denominations organized local congregations. From 1897 to 1899 Willis Day Twichell operated Amarillo College in a building donated by the Sanborn family; the public school met at the former old-town courthouse until late in 1900, when a three-story red-brick school opened. On February 18, 1899, the citizens of Amarillo voted to incorporate and elected Warren W. Wetzel mayor. However, the inauguration of city government was restrained by injunctions, and municipal administration was carried on by county officials and Texas Rangers for a while. The first annual Tri-State Fair was held in Amarillo in the fall of 1899.
By 1890 Amarillo had emerged as one of the world's busiest cattle-shipping points. The population grew from 482 in 1890 to 1,442 by 1900. Construction of the Southern Kansas, the Pecos and Northern Texas, and the Chicago, Rock Island and Gulf railroads by 1903 added to the shipping facilities and helped to increase the population to 9,957 by 1910. The sudden influx of people with the railroads resulted in the rise of Amarillo's Bowery district, notorious for its saloons, brothels, and desperadoes; crime there was commonplace, but after prohibition was imposed in 1911 the Bowery faded away. In 1902 the two-story St. Anthony's Hospital, the first hospital in the Panhandle, was erected; it served the entire area. Electrical service also came that year with the establishment of the Amarillo Light and Water Company, precursor to Southwestern Public Service. The Amarillo Independent School District was formed in 1905, and by the following year a new stone courthouse and jail were completed, after a bitter court battle over ownership of the courthouse square. The Amarillo Street Railway Company began operating its electric streetcar lines in January 1908. Amarillo Academy operated from 1904 to 1907, the first Amarillo College closed in 1910, and the Amarillo Public Library was founded by the Just Us Girls (JUG) Club. The Grand Opera House opened in 1909. In 1913 a second hospital, Northwest Texas, was added. St. Mary's Academy, Amarillo's first Catholic school, opened in 1914, the same year the Board of City Development was formed. Increasing production of wheat and small grains made Amarillo an elevator, milling, and feed-manufacturing center during the early 1900s. Prior to the railroad's extension into the South Plains area, cotton farmers often brought their produce to Amarillo for shipment.
Industry and culture developed in Amarillo after World War I. Gas was discovered in 1918 and oil three years later. The Panhandle added a zinc smelter, oil refineries, and oil-shipping facilities. In 1928 the discovery of the Cliffside gas field, with its high helium content, led to the establishment of the United States Helium Plant by the Federal Bureau of Mines four miles west of town (see HELIUM GAS PRODUCTION). Two United States Army Signal Corps biplanes commanded by Lt. Robert H. Gray arrived at Amarillo on April 27, 1918. Lee Bivins, W. E. Fuqua, and others promoted the aviation industry, and in 1929 the Panhandle Air Service and Transportation Company was established; at one time Amarillo had five airfields, including the Municipal Airport. By 1924 automobiles and buses had made Amarillo's streetcar system obsolete. In 1926 Eugene A. Howe and Wilbur Clayton Hawk bought the Nunn family's Amarillo News and merged it with the Globe to form the Amarillo Globe-News. J. Lawrence Martin started Amarillo's first radio station, WDAG, in 1922; a municipal auditorium was completed in 1923; a twelve-piece Philharmonic Orchestra was formed in 1925; and the Amarillo Little Theater was organized in 1927. The Bivins addition became the first suburban extension in southwest Amarillo. In 1928 Rudolph Aloysius Gerken, the first bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Amarillo, opened Alamo Catholic High School, and the following year Amarillo Junior College began at the Municipal Auditorium with 350 students.
The 1930s brought drought and black dusters to Amarillo (see DUST BOWL). However, the city was a regional center for numerous federal relief programs, especially the Work Projects Administration, whose funds helped improve Amarillo streets, water, and sewerage facilities. The popularity of Art Deco architecture was reflected in several new public buildings, including the Santa Fe Building, headquarters of the Panhandle and Santa Fe Railway, and the new Potter County Courthouse. Howe made news with his "Tactless Texan" column and merged the competing WDAG and KGRS radio stations as KGNC. The arrest and suicide of attorney Alfred D. Payne made national headlines in the summer of 1930, while Ernest Othmer Thompson was mayor. Payne had pleaded insanity in the murder of his wife in an auto explosion, partly because of financial problems and an extramarital affair. In 1934 Cal Farley founded the Maverick Club for underprivileged boys; from that program later grew Kid, Incorporated. Amarillo College moved to its present campus on Washington Street in 1938. Between 1930 and 1940 the Amarillo High School football team won several district titles and four state championships. Four U.S. highways—60, 87, 287, and the fabled Route 66—merged at Amarillo, making it a major tourist stop with numerous motels, restaurants, and curio shops. Although many local oil companies folded during the Great Depression, the firm of Hagy, Harrington, and Marsh was formed in 1933 with offices in Amarillo.
By 1940 Amarillo's population numbered 51,686. A United States veterans' hospital was built west of the city. During World War II Amarillo Army Air Field was a school for basic pilot training, and the nearby Pantex Ordnance Plant (see PANTEX, TEXAS) produced bombs and ammunition. The influx of servicemen and their families and the new jobs ended the city's depression and boosted its chamber of commerce. On May 15, 1949, a tornado killed seven people and caused damage estimated at $2.5 million (see TORNADOES). Between 1950 and 1960 Amarillo grew 85 percent, from 74,443 to 137,969. In 1951 the city's first television station began broadcasting. S. B. Whittenburg published the Amarillo Times, which he merged with the Globe-News when he and his associates bought the company in 1955. During the late 1960s a municipal building, a civic center, a branch library, a corporation court building, High Plains Baptist Hospital, and a multimillion-dollar medical center were built. The closing of Amarillo Air Force Base on December 31, 1968, contributed to a decrease in population to 127,010 by 1970. In September 1970 the Texas State Technical Institute opened a campus on the former base grounds.
The 1970s saw the opening of the Amarillo Art Center on the AC campus, the establishment of the Amarillo Copper Refinery of ASARCO, Incorporated, and the opening of the Donald D. Harrington Discovery Center, which contains the first computer-controlled planetarium in the nation. Iowa Beef Processors and Owens-Corning Fiberglass also built plants at Amarillo. By 1980 Amarillo had a population of 149,230 and encompassed in its city limits more than sixty square miles in Potter and Randall counties. At that time it had 164 churches, forty-seven schools, five hospitals, nine radio stations, and four television stations. Between 1969 and 1986 new oil companies were formed, and as oil prices dropped, seven mergers occurred; Mesa Petroleum Company, headed by T. Boone Pickens, Jr., became one of the nation's largest oil firms.
Gas, petroleum, agriculture, and cattle are Amarillo's principal sources of income. In 1982 the 2,708 local businesses included petrochemicals, grain storage, processing, meat packing, clothing, feed, leather goods, and cement manufacture. The Helium Monument, located near the Harrington Discovery Center and containing time capsules, designates Amarillo the "Helium Capital of the World." In the 1980s the Santa Fe and Burlington National railroads provided freight service, and Amarillo International Airport served five major airlines. New housing developments and shopping centers in south and west Amarillo followed the completion of Interstate Highway 40, and during the 1980s Interstate 27 was constructed from Lubbock to Amarillo. In 1988 Amarillo was the home of the world's largest feeder-cattle auction and headquarters of the American Quarter Horse Association, which publishes a monthly magazine, the Quarter Horse Journal (see QUARTER HORSE). Accent West, Incorporated, headed by Don Cantrell, published its monthly Accent West magazine. Amarillo was home for such celebrities as country music pioneer Alexander C. (Eck) Robertson and Thomas A. Preston, Jr., better known among card players as Amarillo Slim. Actresses Carolyn Jones and Cyd Charisse and humorist Grady Nutt spent their early years in Amarillo, which was celebrated in song by George Strait's "Amarillo by Morning." In 1990 the population of Amarillo was 157,615. In 2000 the population grew to 173,627.