Monday, November 7, 2016

The First Elgin Illinois Airport, (42.07 North / 88.29 West)

Elgin's first airport was laid out in 1926 on part of the Hoornbeek farm along the west side of McLean Boulevard. 
The North-South runway (a single paved 2,800' runway) runway extended to what is now the Larkin High School campus. There were two unpaved runways; the East-West runway 9/27 was about 1,700' long and the 5/23 runway was about 2,150' long, roughly the northern boundary of the Town and Country shopping center on the site today. A wooden hangar and a repair building burned down in 1930, destroying two airplanes. By then, interest had shifted to another site.

In July, 1929, Elgin Airways, Incorporated, obtained a lease on a section of the former Todd farm, then owned by Mrs. Earle R. Kelley. The land, most of it lying in Dundee Township, was level and free of obstructions. It required little grading, and after the weeds were cut and rocks removed, planes soon were able to use the new field. 

Learning of a proposed air mail service running from Chicago to Madison via Rockford and Janesville, the Association of Commerce raised about $16,000 for the improvement of the Kelley property and took over Elgin Airways' lease. Since the mail plane would have to land after dark several months of the year, it was necessary to install boundary and landing lights.  This first airplane made in Elgin, a maroon and cream biplane, was given its maiden flight on November 28, 1928. It was the only one completed by the Ta Ho Ma Aircraft and Motor Company before the firm went bankrupt. The plane was assembled in the old Elgin Silver Plate factory at Melrose and Carr Streets. There was room for two passengers in addition to the pilot.

B.S. Pearsall, a margarine manufacturer, paid for a revolving beacon required by the Post Office Department. It was erected on a rise of land along Highway 20 west of the city and became a familiar landmark until 1952, when it was dismantled and reassembled at the airport. The light was the origin of the Beacon Hill designation still applied to the area.

The Elgin National Watch Company, then producing tachometers and the Avigo magnetic compass, was a major contributor to the project. Victor Showalter, engineer for the firm's instrument division, was responsible for much of the planning necessary for government approval. He also was an active member of the Elgin Avigo Flying Club, a group of local enthusiasts.

Among the reasons for the Association of Commerce investment was Elgin's location in the metropolitan area outside the smoke and haze of the central city. Not only would an Elgin airport offer safe landing conditions, but passengers had fast access to Chicago's Loop on the third rail interurban. A local airport would be good for business.

Mail and passenger operations provided by Northwest Airways started March 8, 1930. More than 7,000 pieces of mail to be postmarked on the first day of service were received from every state and from several foreign countries. The service was prompt and regular, with few cancellations due to inclement weather. The plane from Chicago arrived in the morning, and the plane from Madison landed early in the evening. About four pounds of mail was carried from Elgin each day.

The airport was formally dedicated with a big celebration on June 10, 1930. Among the 77 planes on hand were 30 flown in by the U.S. Army Air Corps and six by the Navy. H. H. “Hap” Arnold, who would become commander of the Army Air Force in the Second World War, led the flight of Army planes from Wright Field at Dayton, Ohio. A crowd of thousands witnessed demonstrations of aerial maneuvering and a parachute jump. Rides in oil company aircraft were available for the daring.

Among the planes on display were Curtiss, Stinson Detroiters, Douglass, Heath Parasols, Gypsy Moths, Monocoupe, Fokker, Waco, and Boeing. Calling attention to the rapid growth of aviation, the main speaker, Rear Admiral Walter E. Crosley, prophesied: "Those cities that are as farseeing as Elgin, who have airports now, are on the ground floor and will profit in the future."

After air mail postage rates were increased, the number of letters declined with the deepening Depression. On May 31, 1933, service on the Elgin route was discontinued. This blow was followed by a tornado in July that roared through the north end of Elgin. The walls of one hangar were blown away as though made of paper. Parts of the roof caved in and crushed two planes. Doors were blown out of another hangar, and one wing of the gasoline station (a structure built to resemble an airplane) was damaged.

The Elgin Airport Company, which had been organized as an adjunct to the Association of Commerce, turned over its lease to the city of Elgin to establish eligibility for federal aid. The application was not acted upon. A drive by business leaders for private funds failed, the Elgin Airport Company suspended its activities, and the Kelley family closed the field.

Aviators then shifted back to the pastures, flying out of a small field east of Trout Park and using part of the Burnidge farm west of the intersection of McLean Boulevard and the South Street Road. These fields were used by barnstormers who carried passengers on brief flights over the city. A "big" Curtiss Condor with a 90-foot wing span landed at Trout Park in 1935 and at the Burnidge Field in 1939.
During the Second World War, the government leased the Kelley grounds as an auxiliary training field for fledgling pilots from the Navy's Glenview base. After the war, in 1946, the Elgin Airport Corporation, led by George Edgcumbe, asked the state of Illinois for permission to re-activate the field. Approval was granted despite vigorous objections from neighboring property owners, who feared the noise of low-flying planes and possible hazards. An office and reception center was erected, and a Quonset hut served as a repair shop. A helicopter air mail shuttle between Elgin, Chicago, and nine other cities started in 1949 and continued for several years.

When Commonwealth Edison took steps to bisect the Elmhurst airport with a high power line, Edgeumbe transferred his facilities to Elgin in 1956-57. Landing lights were installed and several "T" hangars arose. The airport was mainly used by recreational flyers of single and twin-engine planes. The field's longest runway, 2,800 feet, couldn't handle any small jets. More than 80,000 operations were handled in a peak year. Revenue to operate the airport was derived from charter flights, instruction, and the sale and delivery of Piper Cub planes.

Edgeumbe didn't own the 186-acre field, and the value of the land escalated when the tollway opened. The airport was forced to close on November 1, 1983, after it was decided to develop a shopping center and business park on the site. 

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