Amarillo, originally named Oneida, is situated in the Llano Estacado region. The availability of the railroad and freight service provided by the Fort Worth and Denver City Railroad contributed to the city's growth as a cattle-marketing center in the late 19th century.
The city was once the self-proclaimed "Helium Capital of the World" for having one of the country's most productive helium fields. The city is also known as "The Yellow Rose of Texas" (as the city takes its name from the Spanish word for yellow), and most recently "Rotor City, USA" for its V-22 Osprey hybrid aircraft assembly plant. Amarillo operates one of the largest meat-packing areas in the United States. Pantex, the only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility in the country, is also a major employer. The location of this facility also gave rise to the nickname Bomb City. The attractions Cadillac Ranch and Big Texan Steak Ranch are located adjacent to Interstate 40. U.S. Highway 66 also passed through the city.
Large ranches exist in the Amarillo area: among others, the defunct XIT Ranch and the still functioning JA Ranch founded in 1877 by Charles Goodnight and John George Adair. Goodnight continued the partnership for a time after Adair's death with Adair's widow, Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie Adair, who was then the sole owner from 1887 until her death in 1921.
During April 1887, J.I. Berry established a site for a town after he chose a well-watered section along the way of the Fort Worth and Denver City Railroad, which had begun building across the Texas Panhandle. Berry and Colorado City, Texas, merchants wanted to make their new town site the region's main trading center. On August 30, 1887, Berry's town site won the county seat election and was established in Potter County. Availability of the railroad and freight service after the county seat election made the town a fast-growing cattle-marketing center.
The settlement originally was called Oneida; it later changed its name to Amarillo, which probably derives from yellow wildflowers that were plentiful during the spring and summer or the nearby Amarillo Lake and Amarillo Creek, named in turn for the yellow soil along their banks and shores (Amarillo is the Spanish word for the color yellow). Early residents originally pronounced the city's name more similar to the Spanish pronunciation ah-m-REE-yoh, which later gave way to the current pronunciation.
On June 19, 1888, Henry B. Sanborn, who is given credit as the "Father of Amarillo", and his business partner Joseph F. Glidden began buying land to the east to move Amarillo after arguing that Berry's site was on low ground and would flood during rainstorms. Sanborn also offered to trade lots in the new location to businesses in the original city's site and help with the expense of moving to new buildings. His incentives gradually won over people, who moved their businesses to Polk Street in the new commercial district. Heavy rains almost flooded Berry's part of the town in 1889, prompting more people to move to Sanborn's location. This eventually led to another county seat election making Sanborn's town the new county seat in 1893.
By the late 1890s, Amarillo had emerged as one of the world's busiest cattle-shipping points, and its population grew significantly. The city became a grain elevator, milling, and feed-manufacturing center after an increase in production of wheat and small grains during the early 1900s. Discovery of natural gas in 1918 and oil three years later brought oil and gas companies to the Amarillo area.
The United States government bought the Cliffside Gas Field with high helium content in 1927 and the Federal Bureau of Mines began operating the Amarillo Helium plant two years later. The plant was the sole producer of commercial helium in the world for a number of years. The U.S. National Helium Reserve is stored in the Bush Dome Reservoir at the Cliffside facility.
Following the lead of the Fort Worth and Denver City Railroad, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad established services to and from Amarillo. Each of these three carriers maintained substantial freight and passenger depots and repair facilities in the city through most of the 20th century and were major employers within the community.
In 1929, Ernest O. Thompson, a decorated World War I general and a major businessman in Amarillo, was elected mayor to succeed Lee Bivins. Thompson instituted a major capital-improvements project and worked to reduce utility rates. He joined the Texas Railroad Commission by appointment in 1933 and was elected to full terms in 1934, 1940, 1946, 1952, and 1958. He became an international expert on national petroleum and natural gas production and conservation. The first Mrs. Thompson, May Peterson Thompson, a former Metropolitan Opera singer, was involved in the arts while in Amarillo and later when the couple lived in Austin.
Amarillo was hit by the Dust Bowl and entered an economic depression. U.S. Routes 60, 87, 287, and 66 merged at Amarillo, making it a major tourist stop with numerous motels, restaurants, and curio shops. World War II led the establishment of Amarillo Army Air Field in east Amarillo and the nearby Pantex Army Ordnance Plant, which produced bombs and ammunition. After the end of the war, both of the facilities were closed. The Pantex Plant was reopened in 1950 and produced nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War.
In 1951, the army air base was reactivated as Amarillo Air Force Base and expanded to accommodate a Strategic Air Command B-52 Stratofortress wing. The arrival of servicemen and their families ended the city's depression. Between 1950 and 1960, Amarillo's population grew from 74,443 to 137,969. However, the closure of Amarillo Air Force Base on December 31, 1968, contributed to a decrease in population to 127,010 by 1970.
In 1970, the Census Bureau reported Amarillo's population as 6.1% Hispanic and 88.5% non-Hispanic white. In the 1980s, ASARCO, Iowa Beef Processors (present day Tyson Foods), Owens-Corning, and Weyerhaeuser built plants at Amarillo. The Eastridge neighborhood houses many immigrants from countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Burma. Many of them found employment at the nearby Iowa Beef Processors plant. The following decade, Amarillo's city limits encompassed 60 square miles (155 km2) in Potter and Randall Counties. Interstate 27 highway connecting Lubbock to Amarillo was built mostly during the 1980s.
In 2006, the historian Paul H. Carlson, professor emeritus at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, published Amarillo: The Story of a Western Town.