TODAY’S MUNICIPAL AIRPORT

By Claudine Burnett

In June 1921, oil on nearby Signal Hill heralded tremendous growth in the Long Beach area. By 1923, subdivisions were growing around the Daugherty-Municipal aviation field at Willow and Long Beach Boulevard at an incredible pace, and there was talk of expanding Pacific Avenue through the flying field.

When Daugherty purchased the land, it had been inexpensive. No one wanted it. Real estate developers had shunned the Willow Street acreage because of unpredictable flooding and mosquitoes.

Daugherty had been able to expand his aviation field south of the willow thickets, near Long Beach Boulevard where a shallow lake partially dried up under summer heat and then refilled with winter rains. By draining the lake and grubbing out willow trees, the airstrip had room to grow.

But by 1923, residential tracts were pushing from the south and Long Beach city fathers restricted the airport’s Pacific Avenue crossing.

In September 1923, City Manager Charles Windham recommended that a municipal airport be established in the somewhat swampy area known as “water lands” at Cherry and Spring Street. Captain A.W. Marshall, commander of the Naval Aircraft Squadron of the battle fleet urged, that the new field be municipally owned:

“There is an old saying that necessity knows no law. The city that is not far-sighted enough now and arranges for and provides adequate airports for the use of planes, will be compelled, at no very distant date, to provide fields at enormous increase in price, because I believe that air travel will soon be considered, like the automobile a necessity. Unless the field is municipally owned, there is liable to come a time when the money value of the field divided into building lots will cause the owner to divert it. Thus, the airports will be moved farther out, and, as the city develops, yet still farther, until they cease to be convenient to the city.”

Captain Marshall also pointed out that the Long Beach harbor was becoming more and more a Navy base, and as the use of airplanes increased in the fleet, the need for a suitable airfield became more important.

Earl Daugherty believed the new city airport site to be ideal, and offered to donate his services and supervise its development and operation. Access to the airport would be free to federal fliers, he recommended, and a nominal charge could be imposed on other fliers as a means of covering running expenses.

The new airport was on land originally owned by the Montana Land Company, purchased in 1894 by millionaire Montana Senator William A. Clark and his younger brother James.

In 1892, James moved from Montana to Los Angeles and picking up on Llewellyn Bixby’s vision of a vast sugar beet empire, acquired 8,000 acres of the Los Cerritos ranch for $400,000 ($14 million in 2022). The acreage purchased by the Clarks extended from Signal Hill to the City of Bellflower, and east of Cherry to the San Gabriel River.

Sugar beets were planted and the town of Los Alamitos gradually emerged around the area’s sugar beet factory.

In 1911, the City of Long Beach obtained several hundred acres of water-bearing land from the Montana Land Company. At that time, the city was concerned about a future water supply to support growth, little realizing that the land would become home to the city’s airport.

On Nov. 26, 1923, the first earth was turned on what Long Beach City Manager Charles Windham stated would be one of the largest and most complete airports in the United States. Daugherty supervised the operations and predicted that within a year there would be such tremendous use of the airport that a bus line would have to be established to the site.

He was also confident that the U.S. Navy would establish permanent hangars on the Long Beach field. “Long Beach is the only city on the coast that has been far-sighted enough to set aside a great tract of land for this purpose,” he said in an article in the Long Beach Press on Dec. 8, 1923.

 “In the future the Long Beach municipal aviation field will mean to visiting aviators everything that a perfectly kept auto camping ground now means to the automobile tourist. The field will offer cheap rent for hangar space, and will be as perfect a way station for gasoline, oil and repair work as any automobile garage. At least twenty-five air ships owned in Long Beach will be stored at the new field after the big steel hangars are ready for use, and the field itself will be one of this city’s greatest advertising assets.”

On Dec. 20, 1924, the new municipal airport at Cherry Avenue and Spring Street was officially dedicated. Under the auspices of the Aero Club, one of the most spectacular flying meets ever held marked the dedication of the current Long Beach Airport.

A two-day program of exhibition flying and competitive events opened with a relay race and stunt activities. As evening fell, a “flaming comet” streaked across the sky, which in reality was a plane brilliantly aflame with fire-flags. There was some discontent among the crowd when the wedding that was to have been held in the air was postponed. It seemed the groom, who was two months shy of 21, could not obtain a marriage license. The wing-walking and dead stick landing contests, however, made up for the audience’s disappointment.

You will find more about the history of Southern California aviation in my book Soaring Skyward: A History of Aviation in and Around Long Beach, CA.

Claudine Burnett is a retired Long Beach Public Library librarian who compiled the library’s Long Beach History Index. In her research, she found many forgotten, interesting stories about Long Beach, which she has published in 12 books as well as in monthly blogs. You can access information about her books and read her blogs at www.claudineburnettbooks.com.

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