On Blue Mound Road east of Meacham Field, behind a tall security fence, sit buildings that once housed the world’s first helium plant, which the Navy operated to fill its airships during the 1920s.
The surviving buildings of the plant today. The pond supplied water to cool the plant.
Fort Worth’s helium plant had its origin in an experimental helium-extraction station that the government built in north Fort Worth in 1918 during World War I. On December 4, 1917 the Dallas Morning News reported that a “chemical plant” that required substances found in natural gas was being built near north Fort Worth.
In 1918 the government paid Lone Star Gas Company $2 million to build a ten-inch pipeline from the Petrolia gas field in Clay County to the Fort Worth “chemical plant.”
For the sake of national security, the plant’s work was kept secret. Soldiers from Camp Bowie guarded the plant, which was surrounded by an eight-foot, knot-free wooden fence. Workers stored the extracted helium in cylinders and shipped them to New Orleans to be sent to the war front in France. But the armistice was signed before any Fort Worth-produced helium was shipped overseas. (Photo from Fort Worth, “The Convention City,” 1921, Amon Carter Museum.)
After the war the Navy continued to operate the plant, and on January 19, 1919 the Star-Telegram announced that the federal government had come clean and said it would construct the world’s first helium plant adjacent to the “chemical plant.”
The plant would be built on land that had belonged to early civic leader Major James Jones Jarvis. This 1895 map shows Major Jarvis’s home on the road leading to Blue Mound north of Saginaw. (This map detail has other stories to tell. To the east of Jarvis was Hodge Station, which had played a role in the Battle of Buttermilk Junction. To the west were tracts of land owned by Glenwood developer R. Vickery and Rush Loyd, who was almost hanged for another man’s crime but became one of the largest landowners in Tarrant County’s early African-American community.)
The new helium plant, built at a cost of $5 million ($65 million today), was the military’s only source of helium at a time when dirigibles had great strategic importance to the military. Helium, with 92 percent of the lifting power of hydrogen, is a safer gas, less flammable than hydrogen, which was used by Germany’s zeppelins, such as the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg.
The interior of the helium plant was a “mad scientist” maze of tubes, cryogenic cooling tanks, purifying tanks, gauges, and valves. The Navy even maintained an infirmary at the plant, stocked with gas masks. (Photo courtesy of Don Pyeatt.)
In 1924 workers added a mooring mast to the helium plant so that dirigibles could refuel. Helium was piped up the mast to a moored airship. Dirigibles drew large crowds as the ships sailed in to tie up at the mooring mast to refill their gas bags (made from laminated sheets of cow intestine obtained from the Fort Worth packing plants) and to stock up on gasoline and on food for their crews. (Photo courtesy of Don Pyeatt.)
The first airship to “fill ’er up” at the plant was the 682-foot-long USS Shenandoah, the world’s first helium-filled dirigible. The Shenandoah was front-page news on October 8, 1924 as its arrival was anticipated that night. During its moorage the giant airship would be guarded by members of the National Guard and Boy Scouts.
On October 8, 1924 a crowd estimated at twenty thousand turned out to crane its collective neck as the Shenandoah cast its elliptical shadow over Fort Worth and moored overnight at the helium plant. The dirigible left the next morning for the Pacific coast as it made the first flight of a rigid airship across North America.
Clips are from the October 9 and 10 Dallas Morning News.
The “dirigible mooring mast” and “helium production plant” appeared on the 1925 Rogers map of Fort Worth. (From Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)
Exactly four years later, on October 8, 1928 the USS Los Angeles, with a crew of twenty-eight, refueled at the plant (“90,000 cubic feet of helium and 5,000 gallons of gasoline, please, and check the oil”) and moored overnight. The event drew a crowd estimated at twenty-two thousand. Photo, courtesy of Don Pyeatt, shows the Los Angeles passing over the packing plants.
On October 9 the Dallas Morning News showed the ship passing over Dallas headed to Fort Worth. The Magnolia Building, on the left, would not get its neon Pegasus until 1934.
As the Los Angeles neared Fort Worth from the south members of the crew dropped a note over the house at 1021 North Anglin Street in Cleburne. That address was the home of Hannah Rosendahl, mother of Los Angeles commander Charles Emery Rosendahl. Ironically, Rosendahl was not commanding the Los Angeles on that trip. He was in Germany observing the trials of Germany’s new Graf Zeppelin and would return to the United States aboard the Graf Zeppelin on its first Atlantic crossing. In 1937 Rosendahl, who had earlier served on the Shenandoah, would be in command of New Jersey’s Lakehurst Naval Air Station when the Hindenburg burned. (Photo from Wikipedia; clip from October 9 Dallas Morning News.)
(The Shenandoah crashed in a storm in 1925; the Los Angeles was decommissioned in 1932.)
The Fort Worth helium plant also conducted experiments in the noble gases (helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon), resulting in advances in oceanography, medicine, machining, and nuclear physics. Experiments at the plant also contributed to the development of neon lighting, changing forever the appearance of America after sundown.
Approximately 99 percent of the natural gas used at the plant to produce helium was “waste” but not wasted: Lone Star distributed it to customers.
The helium plant even had a basketball team in the Industrial League. After a disputed call on the court, it’s hard not to imagine helium plant team members arguing with the referee with voices like Mickey Mouse.
But by 1929 the Petrolia gas field was depleted, and the helium plant closed. Employees were transferred to a new helium plant at Amarillo. The Fort Worth facility was later occupied by the Federal Aviation Administration and then abandoned. Today the site is occupied by a truck sales company, a towing company, and, each Halloween season, Hangman’s House of Horrors.