The summer of 2017 my mom & I celebrated her 66th birthday with the ultimate road trip of Route 66. As we trekked west through Amarillo, TX, I vaguely remember seeing something about helium. Being a recreation professional & not a chemist, I don’t actually know much about the element helium. On the flip side, being a quirky recreational professional makes me very interested & knowledgeable on a LOT of random roadside attractions, but I had not heard anything about a monument until I was driving through Amarillo & ... maybe I saw a sign for it? I honestly can’t remember.
Let me clear the air, Amarillo’s Helium Centennial Time Columns Monument is NOT just a random roadside attraction. Yes, at one time it was situated right on Route 66, which would possibly put it in cahoots with numerous other quirky, silly, roadside attractions that were mostly just intended to bring in business from the road. But the Helium Time Columns are in a category of their own.
On a work trip, I had the opportunity to visit Amarillo again, with time to explore! A quick internet search turned up the address of 1200-1348 Streit Dr, Amarillo, TX 79106. When I found the Helium Time Columns, at first I thought, “Wow! That is big! Nifty!” Currently, it sits in front of the Don Harrington Discovery Center, a nice children's science center - an appropriate place for a monument to an element. Then, I walked up to it.
Wow! From the parking lot, you can't actually see the most surprising parts of this unique monument. Surprise #1: The entire monument acts as a sundial!
Surprise #2: Each column is a time capsule filled with items from 1968, when the monument was created & sealed in helium!
The time capsules are set to be opened 25, 50, 100 & 1000 years from the time it was created in 1968. That means that the next one is to be opened THIS YEAR!!!! The 2018 time capsule will be opened September 29, 2018. Check here for more information. I haven't found out if the notes near each date* indicates a theme of the contents of that time capsule, but I will find out. One item in the 1,000-years capsule is a savings account book that had just $10 originally deposited in it in 1968. At 4% annual interest, the total of this account in 2968 will be a whopping $1 quintillion!! All payable to the Treasurer of the United States of America. Will the country still be around in 2968?
Why helium? Why Amarillo? Why 1968? "Erected in 1968, commemorating the 100th anniversary of discovery of helium in the gaseous atmosphere surrounding the sun. (The discovery of traces of helium was first announced 1895.)" Amarillo's Cliffside Gas Fields produce over 40 percent of the helium used in the US, giving good reason to use Amarillo's nickname of Helium Capital of the World.
Why are these time capsules using helium? Helium has replaced oxygen in the capsules, which helps preserve the documents inside. Multiple sources state that a previous preservation technique for the Declaration of Independence used humidified helium. It now uses inert argon, which is more appropriate for that specific parchment.
This huge thing was moved once!? Indeed, it was! Much like the repair & reinstatement of the Kansas City iconic Sky Station, the Helium Time Columns were moved from Route 66/I-40 to the Discovery Center via helicopter. Check out the photo in this article from the Amarillo Globe News.
Should I go? Is it worth my time? Absolutely! I had a great time spending about 30 minutes walking around the monument, reading the plaques & informational panels. Ultimately, I ended up dreaming of the 1968 treasures that are preserved in the time capsules. If you are in the area on Route 66, or otherwise, I highly recommend stopping by to learn a bit about one of our natural resources.
*descriptions near each date on the disc:
1993: Man & his dependence on natural resources
2018: Industry & its use of natural resources
2068: Science & its development of natural resources
2968: History of our efforts toward conservation