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.
PAYING FOR LONG-TERM IMPROVEMENTS
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.
NEW AIR FIELD DEDICATED
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.
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.
NO LACK OF EXCITEMENT
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