PIA – A History: Reviving Air Service, 1937-1945

The previous installment of this series covered scheduled airline service at Peoria Municipal Airport from 1932 to 1937. Now we’ll cover efforts to restore service. 

After commercial airline service ended July 16, 1937, a citizens’ committee quickly organized a petition drive proposing maintenance and operation of Peoria Municipal Airport by the Peoria Pleasure Driveway & Park District. The petition, if successful, would result in a special election to approve a tax levy for funding improvements. A total of 5,775 signatures were presented on August 18, 1937 but the Park Board deferred action pending a report that was presented on September 1. A favorable vote set October 5 as the date for an election. Voters approved the tax levy, and Peoria Airport Inc. stockholders subsequently agreed to transfer their ownership of the airfield to the Park District and cooperate with the transition.

The good news was that a tax levy would bring in $75,000 a year for five years. The bad news was that the money would not be available for at least a year, and the Park District had to either purchase airport property for $100,000 or initiate condemnation procedures to obtain it at a lower price.  Additionally, improvements for restoring air mail and air passenger flights were estimated to cost a minimum of $100,000.

An article in the Peoria Star dated August 25, 1938 reported that $103,000 in improvements had been made though it did not specify what exactly had been done (probably attempting to fix the problem of lose shale on the runways). Receipt of an operating license from the Illinois Aeronautics Commission that very day enabled private flying by local aviators, which had been suspended along with commercial flights. Resumption of commercial air transport, however, would have to wait for approval by the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), successor to the United States Bureau of Air Commerce.

The Park Board believed it had a good case for resumption of air mail and passenger service. After all, its shale runways were 100′ wide while those at Springfield Commercial Airport at Chatham were just 60′ wide, and also made with shale material. Yet American Airlines DC-3s continued to stop at Springfield. The CAA didn’t agree, and sent a telegram to the Park Board August 30, 1938 informing them of the improvements necessary for resumption of air mail and passenger service. It read:

Paving entire width of runway ends for at least 500 feet with material securely binding loose shale and providing a surface structurally able to withstand loads will enable recommendation for approval of daylight service.

We recommend complete paving of all runways as soon as possible to ensure continuous service the year round. Suggest you consult airport sectional improvements representative Heppin for assistance in choosing paving specifications.

By year’s end, the Park Board was ready to submit an application to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for $1.1 million in funds. The November 5, 1938 Peoria Star detailed work to be done should the WPA approve the board’s application.

The area within the boundary lights at the airport would be completed, skilled labor, paid at established prevailing rates being used in stabilizing surfacing of runways, drainage and other construction work. Outside the boundary lights, WPA labor would be used in clearing timber and other obstructions, grading and other work on property now owned by the park board. The entrance and parking would be graded and landscaped.

Necessary improvements required more land, and the Park Board used its newly-approved tax levy to expand Peoria Municipal Airport’s size from 200 to 510 acres. Not until 1941, however, did the WPA approve construction of asphalt-paved runways for $987,000. A construction contract was subsequently awarded to Val Jobst & Sons while Caterpillar Tractor Company, R. G. LeTourneau and Keystone Steel & Wire donated equipment and materials for the project, which required the removal of 400,000 cubic yards of earth.

The new Peoria Municipal Airport was dedicated on August 30, 1942 when some 18,000 spectators and 18 celebrities attended ceremonies. Dignitaries perfumed the new airfield, predicting nothing but a bright future, like United States Senator Charles Wayland Brooks, who stated, “this fine airport will be a regular stop on the air course from New York to Los Angeles.” Then he said, “Illinois is proud to dedicate this splendid airport in the second city of our state. We hope that it is but the beginning of the full development of the aviation facilities throughout Illinois.” United States Congressman Everett M. Dirksen, who had only recently inspected a number of airfields in South America said Peoria had “one of the best I have seen in the hemisphere.”

Problem was, eight months earlier, the United States of America had been drawn into a world war and private commercial airlines were contributing most of their aircraft for military use. This American Airlines advertisement from the day of opening ceremonies said it all.

Peo Star Aug. 30, 1942 P. 5 - Copy

American Airlines continued to operate some scheduled flights in the United States, and to Canada and Mexico, but until the federal government released aircraft needed for additional flights, Peoria would be absent the nation’s air routes. Peorians, however, had good reason to be hopeful and proud, as American Airlines vice-president Edward G. Bern told the crowds:

Cities who have not completed airports now may have to wait many years after this war is over before securing airports and adequate air service

As it turned out, scheduled airline service would not resume for nearly three more years.

Lack of transport planes between 1937 and 1945 did not prevent Peoria Municipal Airport from participating in aviation history. According to the Peoria Star, Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan and his bride stopped here for soda pop and fuel on August 16, 1939!

As students of early aviation history know, Corrigan is the one who flew from Long Beach, California to Floyd Bennett Field (Long Island) on July 9-10, 1938 with plans to continue across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland. His plans were denied because his plane suffered a fuel leak. Lacking time to have the leak repaired, he filed a flight plan to return to California on July 17, but was persuaded by the airport manager to wait until the next morning. Corrigan took this advice, but ended up flying not west but east, all the way to Ireland! Some say he did this intentionally. The 21-year-old Corrigan claimed this was not the case. Nevertheless, he returned to New York with his plane via steamship, arriving August 4, the date the 14-day suspension on his pilot’s license ended!

So it was on his stop at Peoria, estimated by airport manager DeWitt Collins to span just eight minutes, that Corrigan and his bride, Elizabeth, fueled up for their journey from Detroit to Kansas City. The couple were bound for a new home in California.

In the next installment, we’ll look at the final steps needed to restore scheduled airline service to Peoria in 1945.

– David P. Jordan

PeoriaStation Time Machine: Circus Train on the TP&W in 2009!

Saturday evening, I had some fun with my Diamond Multimedia TWU750U device. Although designed primarily to enable PCs and laptops access to broadcast channels, it can also be used to upload analog camcorder video.

On May 27, 2009, I shot 17 minutes of footage showing a westbound circus train running between Chenoa and East Peoria on the Toledo Peoria & Western Railway. This train had left Hershey, Pennsylvania the day before on the Norfolk Southern Railway. TP&W took over at Logansport, Indiana.

This was the first visit to Peoria by a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train in six years. In modern times, circus trains visited Peoria on a number of occasions from 1982 to 2003 and used the Burlington Northern/BNSF yard for unloading. The old yard, downsized to just three tracks c. 1986, was little-used after about 2000. Deteriorated crossties and un-even rails eventually forced BNSF to declared it “out of service” in 2005.

Use of the TP&W yard seems to have been the only other possible arrangement for either the Blue or Red tours to reach Peoria. A TP&W train crew pulled the four elephant cars to a spot near W. Washington Street for unloading (then return for loading). Thus, the elephant walk to the Peoria Civic Center included the Robert H. Michel Bridge. Not as convenient as the walk which began at Persimmon Street, but probably the next best arrangement.

Scenes are at Chenoa, Meadows, El Paso, just west of Secor, at Washington and at East Peoria where we see some switching operations being done prior to unloading.

– David P. Jordan

PIA – A History: Air Service, 1932-1937 (Revised)

The last installment covered the air mail fiasco, which actually prompted airlines to place greater emphasis on passengers but also led to greater federal regulation. Now it is time to analyze commercial airline service at Peoria’s Municipal Airport during 1932-1937.

UPDATE (September 26): New information has surfaced, so I’ve revised and added to this post.

American Airlines, Etc. 
When American Airways added Peoria as a stop on its Chicago-New Orleans mail route, it was using nine-passenger Fairchild “Pilgrim” F100 aircraft. Service started on December 10, 1932. The schedule below, culled from an American Airways timetable dated October 27, 1933, shows five arriving and five departing flights daily, including one in each direction on the Chicago-Peoria-Springfield-St. Louis-Jackson (MS)-Memphis route, one in each direction on the Detroit-Chicago-Peoria-Springfield-St. Louis route and a northbound St. Louis-Springfield-Peoria-Chicago flight.

PIA Schedules Oct. 27, 1933

The Air Mail Fiasco, and the subsequent termination of existing contracts, took Peoria off the air mail routes effective Tuesday, February 20, 1934. This was the second time in just under three years that Peoria lost air mail service. Nevertheless, the Roosevelt Administration, stung by unnecessary deaths of inexperienced Army Air Corps flyers using inadequate aircraft, led to the return of air mail routes to private carriers. And in the process, Peoria gained a second airline.

Meanwhile, runway construction and work on drainage ditches posed a safety hazard forcing American Airways to suspend its Peoria stop on Chicago-St. Louis passenger flights. Of note, the carrier renamed itself “American Airlines” during this suspension. Schedules dated June 15, 1934 show the Peoria stop but omits times. A note tells us that “Service will be re-established to Peoria in the near future. Call any American Airlines office for the latest information.” American Airlines wasn’t yet satisfied with Peoria’s airfield, so it delayed service until July 1. The modernized airfield was officially re-dedicated on October 21.

A Second Carrier
In June 1933, Pacific Seaboard Air Lines began flying between Los Angeles (Glendale) and San Francisco (Mills Field) with multiple stops in between. When air mail routes came up for bid in 1934, Pacific Seaboard Air Lines submitted and won Air Mail Route 8 between Chicago, Peoria, Springfield, St. Louis, Memphis, Jackson (MS) and New Orleans. On June 17 that year, the carrier’s fleet of five, 6-seat Bellanca CH-300 Pacemakers were redeployed to the so-called “The Valley Level Route.” Passenger service was added to these flights on July 17.

Schedules provided by the Peoria Journal during this period were used to create this timetable for scheduled air passenger flights at Peoria Municipal Airport in July 1934.

PIA Schedules July 1934

As can be expected, the name “Pacific Seaboard Air Lines” made no sense with the move eastward so on February 1, 1935 the carrier was renamed “Chicago & Southern Air Lines.” Eight-passenger, tri-motored Stinson T SM-6000Bs replaced the single-engine Bellancas in 1935. The Stinsons served as a stopgap before delivery of ten-seat Lockheed 10B Electras in 1936.

Sometime after American Airlines actually resumed service, 12-passenger Curtis Condor II bi-plane sleepers operated all but the southbound Chicago-Ft. Worth flight, which American flew with a single-engine, eight passenger Vultee. This April 28, 1935 timetable denotes that all flights were operated with Vultees. Thanks to federal restrictions on the use of single-engine passenger airliners, the Vultee’s stint in the American Airlines fleet was short-lived, and these were replaced by Stinson A tri-motors.

The DC-3
During the 1930s, growing passenger traffic led to the introduction of larger planes on the nation’s air routes. Boeing’s Model 247 was an advanced, twin engine prop which could hold ten passengers. The plane’s all-metal design was a clear safety improvement. But Boeing would not sell to the type to other carriers before fulfilling a 60-plane order from its affiliate airline and United Air Lines predecessor Boeing Air Transport. Unable to obtain Boeing 247s, Transcontinental & Western Air lobbied for an aircraft that would become the Douglas DC-1. The plane acheived its first flight in 1933. Production aircraft were designated as the DC-2 which first flew in 1934 and could accommodate 14 passengers.

Before the DC-2 was even built, American Airlines persuaded Douglas to design and build a larger version which would accommodate side-by-side sleeper births. Appropriately named the DC-3, the aircraft first flew on December 17, 1935, which happened to be the 32nd anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ historic first flight. American received its first examples in 1936. The DC-3 would revolutionize air travel worldwide, and more than 16,000 had been built when production of all civilian, military and licensed copies ended in 1952.

Inadequate Facilities
Although the DC-3 was built for ruggedness, and could operate from dirt or grass runways if necessary, Peoria’s Municipal Airport posed a serious problem. Sometime in 1937, American Airlines started using the type at Peoria because it was a flagstop on Chicago-Fort Worth Route 30. But due to runway length (four strips each only 2,500′), construction with inadequate material (shale surface) and obstructions to takeoffs and approaches (probably trees), operation of the big Douglas planes quickly proved dangerous. In June of that year, both American Airlines and Chicago & Southern Air Lines (which did not yet operate the DC-3) requested the United States Bureau of Air Commerce order improvements to facilities to ensure safe operations.

On July 10, the Illinois Commerce Commission granted American Airlines the right to either suspend DC-3 service at Peoria or restricted passenger loads to just ten. Given the plane’s 21 passenger seats, this would have made uneconomical. Shortly, the Bureau of Air Commerce ordered not only the suspension of commercial air service at Peoria, but all flights, pending safety improvements effective July 16. The city was thus eliminated as a stop on Chicago & Southern Air Lines’ Chicago-New Orleans Route 8 and American Airlines’ Chicago-St. Louis flights and Chicago-Fort Worth Route 30.

Although Peoria Airport Inc. president (and also Peoria Journal publisher) Carl Slane noted that improvements had been planned for some time, the fact is that Peoria Municipal Airport was privately-owned, and received no government subsidies. Obtaining funds for clearing obstructions and extending the runways required operation and control by a government entity.

Events leading to the restoration of Peoria’s airline service will be covered in the next installment of this series.

– David P. Jordan

PIA – A History: The “Air Mail Fiasco”

Last time, we covered the development of the existing airfield, originally called “Peoria Airport Inc.” Next, we’ll explore how the Air Mail Act of 1930 prompted airlines to emphasize passenger business over air mail, but also led to the “Air Mail Fiasco.”

Commercial aviation got its start through government air mail contracts, so one could cynically, yet truthfully, expect corruption. Air mail operations began with Army Air Corps flyers in August 1918, but then the Contract Air Mail Act of 1925 authorized the use of private carriers. Subsidies were based on weight, and some of the carriers exploited this by handling junk mail and heavy freight as “air mail” and at one hundred percent profit. By 1929, some 45 carriers were involved. Naturally, government discovered its patriotic duty to regulate private air mail services.

In 1926, then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover named William P. McCracken as his Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics. McCracken helped develop standards and regulations for commercial air mail flying but then left government for the private law practice. McCracken’s work led to the Air Mail Act of 1930, signed into law by President Herbert Hoover.

The legislation was requested by newly-appointed (1929) Postmaster General Walter Brown so he could reform the air mail system into an efficient network. Under a new formula in which subsidies were paid by mileage instead of weight, long routes were given an advantage over short ones. Airlines were paid on the basis of aircraft capacity regardless of whether it carried air mail. This discouraged handling junk mail or other freight but also encouraged passenger service. As a result, airlines acquired bigger planes and became less dependent on air mail.

The Air Mail Act awarded contracts to carriers which had been flying for at least six months, operated at least 250 miles and provided daily service. The lowest bid won. Carriers with existing contracts for at least two years could exchange these for a route certificate extending their mail run for an additional ten years. The bill also gave the Postmaster General authority to extend or consolidate contracts at his discretion.

Two weeks after the Act’s passage, Postmaster Brown and William McCracken (who by then was representing airlines) met with a handful of airline executives. Brown used his authority to reduce the number of air mail contractors to four carriers which already existed or would in time become American Airlines, Eastern Air Lines, Transcontinental & Western Air and United Air Lines.

Despite the worsening economy, these changes sparked rapid growth in commercial aviation. Between 1930 and 1932, air miles nearly doubled from 15,000 to 27,000 and passenger volume grew from 385,000 to 476,000 during the same period.

Unfortunately, the shift to larger planes caused Peoria to lose its air mail and passenger flights. American Airways’ Universal Division began accepting Ford Tri-Motors, which were larger than the tri-motored Fokker F-10-As they had been using at Big Hollow Airport. This airfield, also called “Radnor Airport,” was too small for the Tri-Motors so air mail and passenger flights made their last stops there on April 30, 1931.

In September 1933, conservative radio journalist Fulton Lewis Jr. complained to a Senate Committee that air mail contracts awarded during the Hoover Administration did not go to the lowest bidder. Sen. Hugo Black (D-Alabama), Senate Committee on Air Mail and Ocean Mail Chairman, agreed to conduct a hearing.

Although the committee’s findings revealed Postmaster General Brown’s decisions had resulted in a more efficient and profitable air transportation network, Black claimed evidence of collusion between Brown and airline officials. Public hearings took place in January 1934. William McCracken refused to testify and was convicted of contempt.

On February 7, 1934, President Roosevelt announced the cancellation of all air mail contracts. Two days later, it was announced that the Army Air Corps would assume air mail routes. Existing contracts would end at midnight, February 19. As of February 20, Peoria would lose its air mail stop for the second time in three years.

Air mail flights by the ill-equipped Army Air Corps proved disastrous. Obsolete, open-cockpit aircraft were to be used, and too few Air Corps pilots were experienced flying in bad weather or at night. Three pilots were killed in weather-related crashes on February 16 familiarization flights.

The Roosevelt Administration had intended to re-bid air mail contracts to private carriers in June 1934. The Army Air Corps’ unsuccessful attempt to handle this business made it all the more urgent to return the business to them. That month, Congress passed the Air Mail Act of 1934, which heavily regulated the air mail business. It forced an end to holding companies, thus separating airlines and aircraft manufacturers. Carriers previously holding air mail contracts were forbidden to bid on new ones. Those carriers simply changed or modified their names as a way of skirting this ban.

As a result of the new bidding process, Peoria gained a second carrier, Pacific Seaboard Airlines. In the next installment, we’ll cover air service at the Peoria Airport from 1932 to 1937.

– David P. Jordan


PIA – A History: Peoria Airport Inc.

In the previous installment, we covered Big Hollow Airport, which operated from 1926 to 1931.

Plans for the present airfield date to the late 1920s. Apparently, Big Hollow Airport’s inadequacy was known from almost the beginning. Airport authorities were in the future, so the first attempt to establish a larger Peoria airfield came from none other than the Pleasure Driveway & Park District of Peoria, founded in 1894. On July 15, 1930, the Park District sponsored an election so the public could vote on a plan for a new airfield, but it failed.

Local business interests understood the value in restoring commercial airmail and passenger flights, so the Peoria Association of Commerce asked for help from the City of Peoria itself. Another vote took place in May 1931, but it too failed. Then in March 1932, the A of C formed an airport committee which created a plan for fundraising through stock sales to acquire land and purchase materials to build a new airport. The goal was to raise $75,000 and by May 14, 261 Peoria businessmen help reached its goal, actually exceeding it with $76,100.

On May 19, 1932, voters approved development of the new airfield, and the newly-formed “Peoria Airport Inc” purchased the 200-acre Van Buening Farm, located six miles southwest of the city, for $25,000. The rest of the money went toward construction of a passenger terminal, four shale-surfaced runways and other facilities.

American Airways inaugurated air mail and passenger flights to the new airfield on December 10, 1932 when a single-engine, nine-passenger Fairchild “Pilgrim” 100A touched down at 9:00 o’clock that morning. The plane, which originated at Chicago Municipal Airport, departed 45 minutes later for Springfield, St. Louis, Memphis, Jackson and New Orleans with about a thousand peices of mail in nine sacks weighing forty pounds. The northbound evening flight arrived at 6:40 and was scheduled to depart ten minutes later. The plane’s pilot, Eyer L. Sloniger, had worked with Charles Lindbergh on Robertson Aircraft Corporation’s early air mail runs.

Congratulations for Peoria’s achievement came from outgoing President Herbert Hoover:


Washington, D. C. Dec. 10.
Carl P. Slane, president Peoria Airport Inc.: I congratulate the people of Peoria most heartily upon the enterprise and public spirit evidenced by the community development of their new airport to handle the air mail and similar business. This is a splendid example of the aggressive confidence of the nation in the face of all difficulties.

It should be noted that then-American Airways vice president Cyrus Rowlett “C. R.” Smith offered congratulations as well, though he could not attend the inaugural. Smith would become American Airlines’ president in 1934 and except for a period during the Second World War, served in this position until 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson named him U. S. Secretary of Commerce.

So scheduled air mail and passenger flights had returned to Peoria in the depths of the Great Depression. In the next installment, we’ll cover how the so-called “air mail scandal” and disastrous air mail flying by the Army Air Corps affect local commercial aviation.

– David P. Jordan

Quad Cities Gets Washington, DC Route

I wrote about this in February.

The Dispatch-Argus reported two days ago that United Express will offer nonstop service between Quad City International Airport and Washington-Dulles International Airport starting October 26. A 50-seat Embraer 145 will depart daily at 8:22am and return at 11:21pm.

Quad City International Airport won a $500,000 Small Community Air Service Development (SCASD) grant last year. This and another $400,000 provided by the airport itself will be used for revenue guarantees.

Impetus for the service dates back to 2005 when Pentagon officials suggested such service was necessary to continue the Rock Island Arsenal.

Peoria has been interested in Washington, DC flights for a long time, but hasn’t had any since Ozark Air Lines offered one-stop and nonstop flights between 1969 and 1979. Talks with United Air Lines about such service took place in 1989, yet nothing came happened. But if the Quad Cities service is successful, perhaps United Express will be interested in adding Peoria-Washington (Dulles), DC nonstops in the near future?

– David P. Jordan

PIA – A History: Big Hollow Airport (Revised)

In the previous installment, we covered Peoria’s first air mail flights and the fact that they were flown by the soon-to-be famous Charles A. Lindbergh. Now we shift to Peoria’s next airfield, Big Hollow Airport, which was located along then-Illinois Route 30 (north of US 150 and west of Rt. 91 today).

There appears to be some disagreement over when this facility opened. Bill Adams wrote in his November 26, 1990 Yesterdays column that “Big Hollow opened in the late summer of 1926 and Kellar Field was closed.” But this is in contrast to a blurb appearing in the Peoria Journal on November 17, 1926

The new air mail field is practically completed but a delay has resulted because of bad weather. Workmen are now awaiting cables which are needed for the installation of powerful lights. It is hoped that the field can be placed in use within a few weeks.

These “powerful lights” were installed all along the air mail route between Chicago and St. Louis to enable night flying.

Big Hollow Airport actually opened not in late-summer, but on December 20, 1926. The Peoria Evening Star published a story about this on the 18th of the month. The map below appeared in tthat paper on April 24, 1927.

PS April 24, 1927 5-B - Big Hollow Arpt. Map - Copy

The Peoria Aero Club organized an air show here on June 10, 1928. It featured stunt flying and parachute jumps and some static displays. Although an incident with a balloon nearly killed a 15-year-old boy named Russell Staker, events such as this further spread the gospel of aviation to the public.

Also in 1928, Robertson Aircraft Corporation upgraded to 12-passenger Ford Stout Tri-Motor planes on its Chicago-Peoria-Springfield-St. Louis route. This schedule from August 20, 1928 (the date passenger service started here) shows separate air mail and passenger flights. The same times for air mail flights can be found in the schedule below, which appeared in the Official Railway Guide, April 1929 edition (*denotes daily service).


Interestingly, this May 1929 timetable shows that Peoria and Springfield stops on passenger flights had been dropped but continued on air mail flights, as seen on the back cover. By this time, Robertson Aircraft Corporation had become a division of the Universal Air Lines System. Further consolidation was around the corner.

Aviation Corporation was formed in March 1929 and quickly acquired interests in numerous aviation-related firms, including Universal Aviation Corporation, parent of Universal Air Lines. In January 1930, the Aviation Corporation broke off its airline subsidiaries into two carriers: Colonial Air Transport and Universal Air Lines.

So it was Universal Air Lines which assumed the Chicago-St. Louis air mail route using four-passenger planes, probably Boeing Model 40As. These were eventually replaced by six-passenger Fokker “Super Universal” F-10-As. This timetable dated February 10, 1930 shows American Airways’ Universal Division operating Chicago-St. Louis. This one from October 15 that year shows both mail and passengers were handled.

This Summer 1931 timetable shows that Peoria had been dropped from the Chicago-St. Louis air mail route. Service actually ended April 30 that year because American Airways upgraded to larger Ford Tri-Motors. At only 80 acres, Big Hollow Airport was too small for the more modern aircraft being used for passenger flights and thus the Peoria stop was discontinued.

The solution was a new and bigger airport. Creation of the new airfield southwest of Peoria will be covered in the next installment.

– David P. Jordan