Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday July 31, 2004 

Postcard 255: Airmail at Iowa City


Markers and beacons light the Iowa City airstrip in 1924 as one of 34 original refueling and mail transfer stops on U.S. airmail 

flights between New York and San Francisco. The lights replaced bonfires used earlier to mark the landing site after dark.


By Bob Hibbs  

A crowd estimated at more than 3,500 greeted the first transcontinental airmail flight when it landed amid gathering dusk of July 1, 1924 at Smith Field, now Iowa City Municipal Airport.

Among other mail on its New York to San Francisco route, the plane carried a letter from the Merchants Association of New York for the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce.

The event was an exciting spectacle during the Roaring Twenties amid widespread fascination with flight. It drew spectators for an expected night landing on the newly-lighted field. However the plane arrived nearly an hour early in twilight as an eight-million candle power beacon rotated atop a new 50-foot tower.

A 500-million candle power unit was on standby for use during fog and storms.

The event wasn’t the first local airmail flight, nor was it at the first local airfield.

Local flight took off Oct. 13, 1910 from a 40-acre Johnson County fairgrounds, now the Morningside Drive neighborhood west of current Iowa City High School.

The demonstration by St. Louis pilot Tom Baldwin was among the first airplane flights in Iowa. It followed a May flight at Burlington and two at Sioux City in June, all in 1910.

Flying on a windy day above a crowd of more than 10,000, Baldwin’s plane skipped off a treetop near the current site of City High’s Statue of Liberty monument and crashed. He escaped with minor scratches.

During the subsequent decade, local flights remained rare, and shifted to a quarter-mile square pasture owned by W. J. Benjamin, part of the current airport site. The farm became established as the local airport with use on Jan. 8, 1920 as a fuel stop for the first day-time airmail flight from Chicago to Omaha.

Iowa City became legendary with the Jan. 9 return flight when Iowa City merchant Robert Carson shipped a 10-pound pig to Chicago friend and hotel manager John Burke. The publicity stunt prompted widespread reports of Burke walking his “Airmail Pig” on Chicago’s lakefront.

Before artificial lights arrived locally in 1924 and decades before flight radios, pilots arriving at night would buzz the city and airfield, in effect requesting bonfires to mark the field.

The late Claude Higginbotham, known to his long-time barber trade as Hicks and an uncle to this reporter’s wife, recalled racing to the airport as part of a team to assist night-arriving and weather-affected planes. Kerosene and wood supplies made quick infernos as beacons.

The pioneer 1920 airmail flight through Iowa City was piloted by Walter J. Smith, who’s death in an airplane crash two years after the historic flight prompted naming the Iowa City field for him.

Voters approved 1929 bonds to buy and improve Smith Field as a municipal airport. It now has 70 aircraft based there, and encompasses 450 acres, including 54 acres under commercial development.

As World War II approached the airport became a regional center for pilot training. From 1939 through 1944 more than 2,500 took Civilian Pilot Training as part of a Civil Aeronautics Authority program to provide pilots for the war effort. The school was headed by local pilot Paul Shaw.

Shaw had flown his only airplane – an Air King – from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City in 1928 and began giving lessons. His effort was separate from Naval Pre-Flight School which gave initial 90-day training to some 25,000 on the University of Iowa campus during WWII. A few in pre-flight took Shaw’s training, too.

At peak during 1944, Shaw employed 22 instructors using 32 single-engine aircraft.

Commercial airlines served Iowa City from 1927 through 1972; first United, then Ozark Airlines after 1959.

With the centennial of local flight still six years hence, some historic sorties already have been flown.

Next Saturday: The Mechanics Academy incubator.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and other historic ephemera and researches history related to them. 

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