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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.”
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.
This article first appeared on www.myhighplains.com
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