A century ago, the skies over America were sparsely populated. Despite rapid technical advancement during the First World War aviation remained in its infancy and the vast majority of Americans had never set foot in an airplane. The aircraft of that day would be seen as very primitive by today’s standards—in most cases wood and fabric survivors of the hard use World War I trainers dating back to 1917 or 1918.
By the early 1920s this began to change. Barnstormers canvassed the country offering joy rides for a penny a pound as they introduced people to airplanes they had only seen in photos and newsreels.
Airmail pilots Clevelander, Shirley J. Short (in plane), and Harry G. Smith on right on June 10, 1927.One of the first commercial applications of aviation was the transcontinental air mail route that passed through Cleveland between trips to New York City and San Francisco.
Early air mail flights used an airport located in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. Concern about potential danger of crashing into densely populated Cleveland neighborhoods led city leaders to seek a new location.
A 1,000-acre tract on Brookpark Road—then farm land—on the city’s far west side was purchased and in 1925 when Cleveland’s first city manager, William Roland Hopkins, got City Council’s approval to issue bonds for the new airport, and construction of began.
This showed great foresight. A boom in aviation was about to take place, inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s epochal solo flight from New York to Paris in May 1927. Cleveland’s new airport predated this famous flight by almost two years.
Administration Building at the airport with the tail of plane NC14282, an American Airlines DC-2, to the left, and the nose of an American Airlines DC-3 is on the right (
The 1927 airport was very different compared with those seen today. They were normally large open sod fields without hard surface runways. Airplanes then had tail skids and were not equipped with brakes. The tail skid dug into the turf upon landing—slowing the airplane to a full stop.
The new Cleveland Municipal Airport officially began operations with a night landing by a DeHaviland DH 4 mail plane in July 1925.
The airmail operations were joined by a National Guard observation squadron and soon by one of the most remarkable events in aviation history—the National Air Races held at the Cleveland Municipal Airport routinely from 1929 to 1949.
This event drew crowds of 100,000 ticket holders long before the Depression loosened its grip on the area.
Two air traffic controllers at work plotting a map at Cleveland Municipal Airport 1930’sOne attendee recalls being told that the 1938 airshow crowd parked a total of 50,000 cars at the venue.
The process of leaving the event at the end of the day required a two-hour search to find a parked car followed by a two hour wait to get on to Brookpark Road.
No event today comes close to this sort of appeal.
Interrupted for six years by World War II, the Races resumed in 1946. Dominated by wartime fighters, the races came to abrupt end on Labor Day weekend 1949.
Bill Odom flying a highly modified P-51C lost control of the aircraft and crashed into a house on West Street in Berea, killing a young mother and two of her children. While other reasons are often cited, this was a public relations disaster from which there could be no recovery.
The airport hosted airline travel from a very early stage of its existence with Ford Trimotors, providing a route connecting Cleveland with Detroit. All this led to rapid modernization with extensive paved runways and very substantial hangars to replace the obsolete wooden structures built in 1925 to shelter the airmail planes.
The 1950s ushered in the end of an era. The airport was extensively reconfigured, and the Cleveland Municipal Airport was redesignated as Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.
The airmail pilots and their open cockpit biplanes, as well as the racing pilots who came after them had each in their turn flown away, replaced by harried travelers who probably have no idea of the remarkable aviation history once written right before their eyes.
Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.