The long-time head of the Chamber, Gus Backman, always said the “first love” of the Chamber was the city’s airport.
During Backman’s watch the airport made significant strides, building on its role as a leading aviation hub in the West. In 1930, Woodward Field became Salt Lake Municipal Airport, expanding to four hundred acres with eleven hangars and two gravel runways.
The Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club’s aviation committee led the development of a new airport administration building, which opened in May 1933 and cost $52,000 ($722,222 in 2002 dollars). Construction began on the structure in September 1933 on the east side of the field.
“Besides a waiting room, a mail sorting room on the main floor, an office for Vern L. Halliday, airport manager; and a lunchroom, the building provides offices for aviation companies on the second floor. The upper portion of the structure also contains a weather observatory; radio rooms and control room for all of the electrical devices at the airport so an observer with a complete view of the field can adjust flood landing lights and regulate the generators and the transformers from a centrally located board,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported at the building’s dedication.
What the paper didn’t note was how deeply involved the Chamber’s aviation committee was. Five members of the committee, upset over an earlier loss of a United Airlines facility to Colorado because Salt Lake didn’t have a terminal, “signed a note for the money necessary for the construction of a passenger terminal,” recalled Backman, who was one of the five. They got contractors and architects to agree to build the building “on the basis of our guarantee that if Salt Lake City didn’t pay for it, we would pay for it.” The building went up and the city paid for it, he added.
A pre-dedicatory dance was held in one of the airport hangars on May 28, 1933, and flyers demonstrated night landings, including emergency landings with flares, for the crowd. The next day, Alfred Frank, president of National Park Airways, acted as emcee, while Utah Governor Henry H. Blood, Mayor Louis Marcus, and A.S. Brown, president of the Chamber, spoke.
Already an important stopover on the transcontinental airmail route, Salt Lake’s airport took on added significance when the Army Air Corps took over U.S. airmail operations and opened a hub in Salt Lake City in 1934.
Lt. Col. Henry H. (Hap) Arnold was playing golf near March Field, California, on February 10, 1934, when commanders summoned him. He was to direct the western sector of airmail operations based in Salt Lake City. (See photo on page 97.)
Arnold moved quickly. On February 12, he sent thirteen aircraft, some of them transports but most P-26 single-seat fighters, to Salt Lake City along with mechanics and a small headquarters contingent. In all, fifty-seven pilots operated within the western zone, most of them out of Salt Lake City.
Arnold set up headquarters in the downtown Newhouse Hotel. Backman quickly renewed his friendship with Arnold. While the Army’s experimental delivery of the nation’s mail only lasted four months after several accidents and bad publicity, the Backman-Arnold friendship paid dividends years later when Arnold, who had become the chief of staff of the Army Air Corps, helped Backman and Utah land several important war-time plants, bases, and other operations. It also helped influence future decisions about military aviation operations at the airport.
In 1937, three large runways were built as part of a federal work project and the municipal airport entered the “big time,” according to one report. The improvements helped the airport become one of the country’s top seven civil flying fields of the time.
By 1943, the airport became a training base and replacement depot for the Army Air Corps. Salt Lake Municipal Airport 2 was built in southwest Salt Lake Valley to handle trainees. Crews trained for the B-17 Flying Fortress from what was then called the Salt Lake Air Force Base. The airport also served as a vital transcontinental link of personnel and materiel during both World II and the Korean War. The Utah National Guard began using the field in 1947.
Improvements continued at the airport in 1954. The airport incorporated the Army-built airbase and federal funds helped build a $2 million runway–the most costly project at the airport up until that time. (In 2002 dollars it would cost $13.4 million.) Pilots landed jets and four-engine planes on the longer runways more easily. Pilots had navigated the more powerful crafts with apprehension on the airport’s shorter runways. To make the landings, for example, the planes had to come in disconcertingly low over busy U.S. 40 bordering the south side of the airport.
By 1956, the airport spread over fifteen hundred acres and served United, Western, and Frontier airlines. The airport handled more than a thousand passengers a day, along with tons of air shipments. That same year, L.C. “Renny” Romney, Salt Lake City’s Commissioner in charge of parks, playgrounds, and the airport, recognized the airport terminal needed more space for the growing number of passengers and airport staff. He approached Frank Streator, former chairman of the Chamber’s aviation committee, for assistance. Architects developed an expansion plan, but leaders soon realized the only way to fund the project was to ask voters to pass a $2.5 million bond issue.
The Chamber participated in a broad-based community campaign to raise the money. When the votes were counted, the bond had been approved by a margin of 19 to 1. The local money was matched with $1.5 million in federal dollars and $500,000 in current income. In all, the expansion project cost about $6.2 million. Leaders promised voters that the bond would be paid off over twenty years from airport revenues.
By 1968, officials renamed the facility the Salt Lake International Airport, initiating a near-continuous expansion program into the Twenty-first Century.
Sources: Roger D. Launius “Crossroads of the West: Aviation Comes to Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly, 58 (Spring 1990): 108-30. “Dedication Ceremony Nears at Airport Administration Building,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 25 May 1933. Twila Van Leer, “Salt Lake has played a lofty role in aviation history,” Deseret News, 7 May 1995. “From Jennies to Jets – Airport Paces Startling Growth,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 10 June 1956. Gus P. Backman typescript, 1 July 1970, Salt Lake Chamber papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah.