City’s first airport was bustling, had major carriers

Cows were a hazard at Pueblo’s first airport on the prairie.

By MARY JEAN PORTER | maryp@chieftain.com | Posted: Monday, November 21, 2011 12:00 am

At least a decade before there was a true landing field on the South Side, the open ground of Uplands Park attracted early aviators. And visiting “aeroplanes” attracted crowds to the State Fairgrounds where, in December 1910, they paid 50 cents apiece to see a Farman biplane and a Bleriot monoplane. Puebloans turned out again to see 12 visiting planes at a three-day show in April 1911 at the Fairgrounds.
Looking back from mid-century, a Pueblo Star-Journal reporter wrote: “Pilots skimmed treetops and buzzed cows and chickens during takeoffs from pastures in South Pueblo.”

It was the cows’ turn to agitate the pilots when, on a dusty day in the ’20s, a drover guided his stock into the path of a series of landing planes. Horrified observers got the cowboy’s attention and he was able to divert the herd at the last minute and avoid disaster.
By 1920, six 150-foot-wide runways had been graded out of the prairie and, in 1923, the Colorado National Guard organized Flight B of the 120th Observation Squadron in Pueblo and equipped it with six planes. The squadron was called the “eyes of the Army.”
The city boasted 60,000-plus people in 1925 when its first municipal airport was established on the South Side, on what is now Prairie Avenue. The airport hangar was completed in 1925 and airmail service was begun a year later. The steel girders and corrugated sheet metal for the hangar had been used in France during World War I and were sent to Pueblo by the federal government; penitentiary inmates from Canon City provided most of the labor for construction of the $50,000 hangar.

Among the first planes to occupy the hangar were four World War I-surplus Curtis JN4 Jennies, according to History Colorado. The Jennies were open-cockpit biplanes used as trainers during the war and as show planes afterward.
On May 31, 1926, Puebloans gathered at their new airport to celebrate departure of the first airmail flight from the city to Cheyenne, Wyo. The plane “soared away like some majestic bird into the turquoise blue of a cloudless Colorado sky,” The Pueblo Chieftain enthused, while thousands cheered and the national anthem was played.

Newspaper promotions urged citizens to send letters anywhere in the U.S.A. for 10 cents per one-half ounce. Six-thousand letters posted by Puebloans were carried on the inaugural run. But the airmail plane had to land here before it could take off, and the first piece of mail it delivered to Pueblo was a copy of the May 30, 1926, New York Times sent to The Pueblo Chieftain with a congratulatory message enclosed. It cost $8.35 in airmail stamps for the package to be flown to Pueblo.
Local businessmen predicted great things with the coming of airmail service and bragged, “The landing field here is one of the best in the entire country.”

Ten planes competed in a Denver-to-Pueblo air race in August 1926, with the prize a silver loving cup provided by Spencer Penrose of Colorado Springs.
City rivalry also figured in Pueblo’s early romance with aviation. The Colorado School of Aviation, one of several local flight schools, furnished a plane and a pilot to fly over the Central-Centennial football game on Nov. 24, 1927, at Central stadium during halftime and drop red and blue confetti on the field.

On the edge
The 1929 Pueblo City Directory listed the Pueblo Airport in the 900 block of Prairie Avenue, and Piele Brothers and William Conner, all commercial aviators, at 1000 Prairie along with Western Air Express. Donley dairy, in the 1900 block, was the only listing on Prairie south of the airport.
Federal work-relief programs of the 1930s were a boon to the small airport. Civil Works Administration and Works Progress Administration laborers installed nearly 10,000 feet of paved runways and nearly 4,500 feet of unpaved runways. The hangar was moved to a better location and a steel tower with a beacon was installed near it. A large “Pueblo” sign was painted on the hangar roof to identify the airport, and lights were installed to mark the perimeter. A map, drawn to indicate placement of the lights, noted that the airport area was 423.74 acres.

The airport was bounded on the east by Prairie Avenue and on the south by Northern Avenue. One corner (the airport was irregularly shaped) stretched nearly to Thatcher Avenue and the western boundary was notated only by legal description, not street name, on the map. Other early maps show the “Beulah Highway” taking off on a sharp diagonal from Prairie toward the southwest.
The WPA crews built a limestone control tower and offices adjoining the hangar for flying schools, the city, and commercial airlines. The north side of the hangar was enlarged to provide space for aircraft maintenance.

In 1944, the citizens of Pueblo — on behalf of the airport — were given the National Security Award to recognize the cooperation that existed between the airport and the Civil Aeronautics Authority, a federal agency.
Local historian George R. Williams Jr., who’s written about WPA improvements to the airport, said it was a busy place after World War II. There were flying schools for men learning to fly on the GI Bill. There were flying clubs — The Flying Farmers was one. Braniff and Continental airlines served the airport and Continental had mechanics stationed there.

Williams worked as night janitor at the airport while he attended Central High School.
“The last flight out was about 9 o’clock, and then the lights would go down and I’d do my work. A guy who carried a gun came and brought the mail for the last flight out.”
Williams didn’t learn to fly, but he did ride along on night flights to Lamar and back.

“There were just three people in a plane, and I’d sit in back and go along for the ride.”
He said there was a restaurant and coffee shop at the airport and a weather station nearby, built by the WPA crews, where employees checked wind direction and velocity at night by sending balloons carrying lighted candles into the sky.
Historian John Korber, who’s compiled three notebooks full of newspaper clippings on the Pueblo Airport, said the only time he flew out of the old airport was on a flight to Trinidad with his brother Leo in Leo’s BT13.

“It was kind of a training plane, with one person in the front and one in the back. I didn’t go up with him when he flew over the Royal Gorge.”
Shirley Herrington remembers the airport from childhood trips to town with her father, who delivered produce here for a Trinidad company.
“To me, it was just fascinating to see the planes going in and out and the people going in and out of the terminal,” says Herrington, who lives near Elmwood Golf Course. “When I tell people that the Sunset Plaza area was an airport, they look at me like I’m crazy. A lot of people aren’t aware that this very populated area was an airport at one time.”

Ray Sisson, historian for the Weisbrod Aircraft Museum at Pueblo Memorial Airport, said the museum’s focus is military rather than civilian aviation.
“When we’ve talked about expanding the role of our museum, I’ve wished we could move the old hangar (on Prairie Avenue) here. It certainly is a piece of history, in and of itself.”

Sisson is the caretaker of a large collection of clippings on the Pueblo Airport that John Downey compiled. Downey intended to write a book on civil aviation here but was unable to finish his project, Sisson said. His files start in 1904 and stretch to 1949, a year after the city acquired the former Pueblo Army Air Base east of town with the intention of moving the airport.
A 1949 Pueblo Chieftain article offered these statistics about the airport: 10 city workers and 63 other workers employed; 1,300 to 2,000 passengers a month served by the commercial airlines; air freight averaged 16,000 pounds a month; nearly 11,000 gallons of gasoline sold at the field per month; 16 commercial flights — Continental, Braniff and Monarch — arrived and left the field each day; more than 100 planes were based at the field, most privately owned. The airport’s budget for 1948 was just over $33,000, plus a $6,000 emergency appropriation from the city.

The airport was moved in 1954, and the former airport land on the South Side was platted and sold to developers, except for a few acres around the hangar, and land north of St. Clair Avenue, which was used to expand the municipal golf course. The subdivided and developed area is today’s Sunset Park.
The former airport weather station became a fire station, which later was replaced by two fire stations at better locations.
In 1957, the city of Pueblo deeded the hangar and 3 acres of land to the State Historical Society (now History Colorado). El Pueblo State Historical Museum opened at the site on July 12, 1959. Dedication ceremonies were held in the auditorium of nearby Calvary Baptist Church. During the first 10 days of operation, more than 4,000 people from 27 states and three other countries visited the new museum.
But the airport building needed repair before it could serve as a museum.

“We start from nothing with the biggest project the society has ever undertaken and, perhaps next to this central Denver museum, the most important,” wrote historical society president James Grafton Rogers in his annual report published in January 1958. “The city of Pueblo has shown enterprise and courage. The state can do likewise.”
The museum closed at that location in 1992 and reopened in a refurbished building on First Street near the site of the original El Pueblo trading post. A new museum was built there a decade later.

History Colorado now uses the former museum/airport hangar as a support center. Old carriages, furniture, farm equipment and early washing machines, as well as artifacts excavated in archaeological digs at Fort Garland, are stored there, according to Kathleen Eriksen, education coordinator and curator for El Pueblo History Museum.
“It’s all alarmed, and there are conservation methods to regulate the heat and moisture level,” she said.
Sources: “New Deal Projects in Pueblo During the Depression Years,” by George R. Williams Jr., Pueblo Lore, January 2007; The Pueblo Chieftain and The Pueblo Star-Journal; Pueblo City-County Library District; “The Colorado Magazine,” January 1958 and October 1959

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