Des Moines Grain Trains Are Back!

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After a two-year hiatus, the Iowa Interstate Railroad is again handling grain trains from Des Moines, Iowa to East Peoria for the Norfolk Southern Railway.

The first train of empties – 85 cars – arrived Thursday, August 27 and returned loaded during August 30-31. The train, led by NS 8932, 2594 and 2645, was sitting along Wesley Road early Monday evening awaiting a Norfolk Southern crew. Some cars have CCLX reporting marks (“Crystal Car Line,” long associated with Corn Products Co., now Ingredion) which suggests the train could be destined for Ingredion’s Winston-Salem, North Carolina wet corn mill.

The IAIS and NS originally partnered on these moves from late March 2012 through April 2013 then briefly in August that year. Bumper corn harvests in Norfolk Southern-served territory rendered purchased by southeast feed mills and processors unnecessary until this year, when excessive rains ruined crops in several Midwestern states.

Word is, there is enough traffic for three loaded trains per week through next March. So in addition to coal, ethanol and some merchandise traffic, the IAIS-NS Peoria Gateway will be busy for while.

– David P. Jordan

PIA – A History: Air Mail and Charles Lindbergh

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At the intersection of High Point Road and High Point Lane, a historical marker remembers Kellar Field and its connection with Charles Lindbergh. It seems likely, however, that he only landed here until Big Hollow Airport opened later in 1926 (not into 1927 as the marker claims). 

The previous installment covered early aviation and facilities in Peoria. Now we will cover our first scheduled air mail service.

Robertson Aircraft Corporation was founded at St. Louis in 1921 by brothers William and Frank Robertson, who served as president and vice-president, respectively. Operations started at Forest Park, but soon after expanded to a second facility, St. Louis Flying Field, which the brothers helped establish on 170 acres of leased farmland in St. Louis County. In 1923, St. Louis Flying Field was renamed Lambert-St. Louis Flying Field after Major Albert Bond Lambert. Major Lambert purchased the property in 1925.

That same year, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill transferring airmail flying from the Post Office Department to private contractors. Robertson Aircraft Corporation won the Chicago-St. Louis air mail route (CAM-2) which included stops at Peoria and Springfield. It began on April 15, 1926. One of its pilots was none other than aviation pioneer Charles A. Lindbergh.

Robertson Aircraft used two DeHavilland DH-4’s to operate the route. The first flight departed St. Louis, stopped in Springfield and then at 6:55am, Lindbergh touched down at Kellar Field. Two planes flew together and the second of these landed just behind Lindbergh. Harlan Gurney, Phillip Love and Thomas Nelson were the other pilots assigned to this route.

Daily flights went smoothly until April 22 when Love smacked his undercarriage on a drainage ditch at the west side of Kellar Field. The propeller and belly of the DH-4 suffered damage so a spare plane was flown up from St. Louis by Nelson. Not Peoria’s first aviation accident, but the first involving a scheduled flight.

Lindbergh himself did not escape such incidents. He had to abandon ship four times, twice during his mail flying career. On September 16, 1926, dense fog forced him to abandon the Peoria stop on his way to Checkerboard Field in Maywood near Chicago. But he had ran out of fuel, which forced him to bail out near Wedron. On November 3, mechanical issues forced him to bail out over Bloomington. No mail was destroyed in either crash, however.

One summer day in 1926 while flying the northbound leg from St. Louis, Lindbergh, by his own account, thought up the idea of becoming the first to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. So in February 1927, after serving ten months as chief pilot for Robertson Aircraft’s CAM-2 mail route, he took a leave of absence to pursue his dream. He then moved to San Diego, California where a plane was designed and built for his planned Trans-Atlantic flight.

On May 20, 1927, Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field on New York’s Long Island in his Ryan Aircraft Company “Ryan NYP” mono plane dubbed Spirit of St. Louis. Late in the evening the next day, after some 33 hours, he landed at Le Bourget Airport in Paris, France. Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis in Belgium and Great Britain before returning it to the United States.

Suddenly, the 25-year-old air mail pilot from St. Louis became a worldwide celebrity and a national hero. His fame promoted American commercial aviation more than any prior event. For the rest of the year, those applying for pilot’s licenses tripled, registered aircraft quadrupled and airline passenger traffic exploded.

Given Lindbergh’s continuing fame, there could be nothing more exciting in Peoria than to witness the celebrity pilot work his old mail route. He flew St. Louis-Springfield-Peoria-Chicago on February 20, 1928 and in reverse the next day. By this time, three aircraft and five regular pilots were needed to handle the heavy volume.

Also by this time, the air mail route shifted to new Chicago and Peoria airfields. In 1927, Chicago dedicated its Municipal Airport which would eventually be known as Chicago Midway Airport. Peoria’s Kellar Field was inadequate for modern aircraft, so in late-December 1926 after several months of preparation, Alexander Varney opened a new facility. Known as Big Hollow Airport, it was located eight miles northwest of Peoria on acreage now occupied by The Shoppes at Grand Prairie.

(The next installment in this series will cover Big Hollow Airport)

– David P. Jordan

PJStar Covers PIA Terminal Project

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The Peoria Journal Star posted a story last evening on Peoria International Airport’s terminal expansion project.

First, I need to get something off my chest. The headline reads Peoria airport expansion could eventually lead to international flights. Of course, when you build an international terminal, one should expect to have international flights at some point. 😛

Actually, the current terminal expansion project is being driven by tight gate space in the present terminal building. International flights may still be a few years away. Facts gleaned from the article are:

(1) The new building, situated where the old terminal used to be, is 35 to 40 percent complete.

(2) Airport Director Gene Olson told the reporter Chris Kaergard that this kind of project had been “…on every airport director’s to-do list for quite a while, for like the last four or five guys.” Which means Bruce Carter (1994-1998), Fred Traub (1999-2001), Solomon Balraj (2002-2005) and Ken Spirito (2006-2008) all looked at such a project. And a fifth guy, Ron Burling (1969-1994) must have been interested as well.

(3) Two Allegiant Air jets are scheduled here at the same time twice a week, which requires passengers on one to deplane via air-stairs rather than a jetway.

(4) A full customs operation may require up to eight personnel, which takes time to hire and train.

(5) International destinations are likely to be in the Caribbean and Mexico.

(6) With Federal Inspections Service facilities in operation, PIA could handle some international flights diverted due to poor weather at Chicago-O’Hare. Passengers could deplane and stay in the terminal lounge if necessary.

(7) The new terminal is to open in Spring 2016.

– David P. Jordan

Gritty, Industrial Railroading – Part XV

For the second time, this series features gritty, industrial railroading outside the Peoria area. This time, we see Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Railway MP15DC No. 121 with slug No. 127 in charge of “Job 6” switching Penford Products’ Cedar Rapids, Iowa wet corn mill on August 22, 2015.

First, some history. The Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Railway is a former interurban which began operations between its namesakes in 1904. It transitioned to a dieselized, freight-only carrier in 1953. Industrial development kept the carrier afloat and today, the “Crandic” can boast of rising traffic and a young diesel fleet. Some of its largest customers include its owner, Alliant Energy and also Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, International Paper, Penford Products and PMX Industries. Coal, grain, grain products, chemicals and paper products provide the bulk of the line’s business, amounting to 100,000 carloads a year.

Penford Products’ Cedar Rapids plant got its start with the Douglas Starch Works in 1903. An explosion destroyed the plant in 1919 but the business was sold late that year to Penick & Ford, which rebuilt the plant. Penick & Ford added corn syrup production to the plant’s primary starch business.

Starting in 1965, Penick & Ford was under control of R. J. Reynolds, which in turn sold it to VWR United/Univar Corporation in 1971. The corn syrup business ended in the late 1970s. In 1984, Univar spun off Penick & Ford along with a new subsidiary, Penwest Corporation, and in 1987, Penick & Ford became “Penford Products.” Penford has expanded its Cedar Rapids plant over the years, most recently opening a 45 million-gallon-a-year ethanol plant in May 2008.

History has a tendency to repear itself. Corn Products Refining Corp. owned 25 percent of Penick & Ford for a brief period, but was forced to divest its stock in 1913. Corn Products Refining Corp. became just “Corn Products Co” in 1958 then CPC International in 1969. Another change in 1997 modified the company’s name to “Corn Products International.” Then in 2012, the company was renamed “Ingredion.” As it turns out, Ingredion purchased Penford Products in March 2015. Corporate re-branding should occur soon.

Penick & Ford was served by the Milwaukee Road, but that carrier’s reorganization through bankruptcy, which began in December 1977, eventually forced a reduction in miles operated. In March 1980, the Crandic assumed emergency service on the Milwaukee’s Ottumwa Subdivision between Cedar Rapids and Middle Amana and then purchased the trackage the following January.

I didn’t shoot every pull or shove made by the Crandic mother-slug set, but I’m pretty happy with the coverage I did get. This is a classic, industrial age scene with a manufacturing plant surrounded by city streets, a river and business or residential development. Traffic on First Street Southwest must be stopped many times so that Crandic switch crews can either spot or pull loads and empties.

It appears Penford Products receives corn primarily by truck, though Google satellite photos indicate rail delivery to the plant’s grain elevator (southeast side of complex) is possible. So inbound traffic may be limited to hydrochloric acid, some of which may be shared with neighbor JRS Pharma. Outbound traffic includes food and industrial starch, corn gluten feed, corn gluten meal, corn germ, steepwater and ethanol. Also note the boxcar in the string of cars being pulled near the end of the video. Penford apparently ships bagged starch by rail to some of its customers.

– David P. Jordan

Peoria Int’l Terminal Update

Official updates on the international terminal now under construction at Gen. Wayne Downing Peoria Int’l Airport are few and far between, so it is treat when they do come.

But now I’ve got something better. This morning, a regular reader of this blog, Mike Fiedler, took six photos of the new terminal while he waited for his flight to depart. As you can see, much progress has been made to the building itself. Click for larger view.

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– David P. Jordan

PIA Posts July 2015 Passenger Record! (Updated)

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Peoria International Airport continues to bustle with passengers in 2015.

According last Tuesday’s press release, the airport handled 61,156 passengers in July, the most for a single month. It also beat the previous monthly record – 60,750 passengers in March this year.

The airport press release also states that load factors on Delta Connection’s Peoria-Atlanta flights are 58% higher than last year, and Allegiant Air’s Phoenix flights are getting 50% more passengers.

Don’t be surprised if the former increase leads to larger jets in the near future.

UPDATE (August 24, 2015): The airport’s press release includes monthly passenger figures for 2015.

January – 46,944
February – 43,802
March – 60,750
April – 53,241
May – 54,485
June – 59,939
July – 61,156

March and July figures are the second highest and highest monthly tallies ever for PIA. Traffic for June 2015 figure exceeded June 2014 by 566 passengers. Passenger traffic was already 319,161 for the first six months of 2015. July figures increased this to 380,317. Adding close to 300,000 more passengers is possible before the end of the year, assuming lower fuel prices and competitive pricing hold.

Unfortunately, American Eagle has delayed yet again the introduction of larger jets into the PIA-DFW market. This had been scheduled for November 5 (originally planned for March 29). Schedules show existing 50-seat equipment on three daily roundtrips into early February.

But perhaps this is good news. Larger aircraft means fewer flights and fewer seats so it is possible the carrier is delaying the upgrade because it needs the present 150 seats per day in each direction. An upgrade to the larger, 67-seat CRJ700s would have reduced this to 134 seats each way.

– David P. Jordan

PIA – A History: Beginnings

BEGINNINGS
Peoria’s aviation history began with balloons. Captain H. E. Honeywell of St. Louis built a balloon and named it Peoria. He won the “Greatest Distance Achieved” award during a balloon race at Peoria in 1909. Honeywell ended up in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains.

Soon, the “Aircraft Club of Peoria” was organized. Two years after the balloon flight, a plane named the “Falcon” was built here and flown from a meadow near Chillicothe. The plane was unsuccessful, and on its last flight, in 1912, ended up crashing and severely injured its pilot. But the foibles of early aviation failed to deter others from bringing their planes to Peoria. Walter Brookins visited the Mile Track (now Peoria Stadium) in 1913 with a Wright Biplane and James Ward came the following year with a Curtiss aircraft.

Glenn Curtiss, it must be noted, had actually lived in Peoria while working for a bicycle manufacturer (probably Rouse-Hazard). Curtiss considered building his airplanes in Peoria, but lacking enough space, decided on Buffalo, New York. In 1929, Curtiss’ company merged with the Wright Bros’ Wright Aeronautical, creating the Curtiss-Wright Corporation (see, even Peoria had a connection to the Wright Brothers!).

In 1919, Peoria was visited by a bi-plane built for commercial uses, such as performing aerial photography and flying passengers. The plane was a Curtiss JN-4D, and it was flown from the Mile Track.

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Eventually, local aviation backers promoted the city’s first official airport, Kellar Field, which opened about 1921. The Peoria Journal reported on May 9 that year

Airplanes have already lost their novelty and are now considered an accepted means of transportation, according to a demonstration at the municipal landing field yesterday. Two planes arrived here Saturday and rested at the fields yesterday.

Hundreds of tourists and joy riders passed the field yesterday and not a one seemed curious enough to stop for a look. Willis Evans, secretary of the association of commerce, reports, “Passerby scarcely glanced at the planes,” he said. “The thrill, or novelty, if you like, of the machines has vanished. They are now considered in the same light as the steamboat, an accepted means of transportation.”

Perhaps aviation had lost its novelty, but in Peoria it would soon grow in importance thanks to Alexander Varney.

Born in Delavan, Illinois, Alexander Varney learned to fly while in Des Moines, Iowa. He came to Central Illinois to promote the Curtiss Aeroplane & Engine Co., flying a plane left surplus from the Great War. In 1922, he moved to Peoria and leased Kellar Field (later, Brown Field), set up the Varney School of Flight, and purchased an Aeromarine 39B seaplane brought here a year earlier by H. E. Cumerford. Young men from around the country came to the school to learn how to fly from both land and water. (NOTE: An Aeromarine 39B conducted the first landing on moving American vessel, the USS Langley, on October 26, 1922.)

A true air show was held at Kellar Field on May 11, 1924, writes the Peoria Evening Star that day

This afternoon at 2:30 o’clock there will be an exhibition of fancy aeroplane midair eccentricities at Kellar field. Likewise Jack Williams known to fame as the “Human Fly,” scaler of tall buildings and hero of altitudinous daredevilty will do nerve racking stunts on and under the flying planes. No admission is charged but Salvation Army lassies are to take to (sp) a collection, forty per cent of which goes to the Army.

With aviation having become “an acceptable means of transportation,” it was only a matter of time before Peoria would be added to the nation’s growing staple of commercial air mail routes. The nation’s first scheduled air mail flights began May 15, 1918 between New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC. New York-Cleveland and Cleveland-Chicago routes were added the following year. The Chicago route was extended to Omaha in 1920 and on September 8 that year, scheduled air mail service reached San Francisco. (Mail was flown only in daylight; it was still handled at night by rail.). Five years later, Peoria was poised to become a stop on a Chicago-St. Louis route.

In early October 1925, the Post Office Department selected Robertson Aircraft Corporation of St. Louis, Missouri to operate the Chicago-St. Louis air mail route. National Air Transport of Chicago and General Airways System of New York had submitted competing bids. Peoria was actually omitted from the original proposal, but had to be added after political pressure. Service began on April 15, 1926.

(The next installment in this series will cover Robertson Aircraft Co.’s new air mail service and the first flight’s soon-to-be-famous pilot, Charles Lindbergh.)

– David P. Jordan

Introduction to Gen. Wayne Downing Peoria Int’l Airport – A History

One thing I can’t stand about historical accounts is the overemphasis on beginnings with the rest covered in an overly-simplistic summary.

Let’s put it this way: Commercial aviation has a long history. The Wright Brothers made the first heavier-than-air powered flight on December 17, 1903 – almost 112 years ago. So there is a lot of aviation history to cover. Peoria’s early aviation began a short time later. Past coverage in the Peoria Journal Star (a la Bill Adams’ Yesterdays column, and Steve Tarter’s more recent work) contains significant early dates such as April 15, 1926 (inaugural air mail service) or December 10, 1932 (present airfield opens).

But what about events which occurred on May 1, 1945, November 6, 1950, May 1, 1959 or even March 3, 2004?* Commercial aviation history includes service changes, facilities and decision-makers. Present-day activities might be considered dull, but once viewed from the future, they will be more interesting. Believe me, there is a lot of forgotten local aviation history. So let’s cover it all.

Soon, I will post the first installment in a blog series. We’ll start with some early airfields and commercial airline service prior to opening of the present airfield in 1932.

*May 1, 1945 – TWA begins Peoria service; November 6, 1950 – Ozark Air Lines begins Peoria service; May 1, 1959 – new terminal building opens; March 3, 2004 – Allegiant Air begins Peoria service. 

– David P. Jordan