It was an unlikely winter day for a “red-letter” event in Utah history. It was January 30, 1910, and Salt Lake’s snowy weather had hampered a much-hyped aerial exhibit a day earlier.
On a Sunday morning, a scrawny Frenchman named Louis Paulhan crawled into his 42-foot Farman two-seater biplane for a fourth try at the Utah skies. The engine crackled into life and Paulhan waved his arms. The little plane rattled down the makeshift airstrip covered with snow. The plane was up.
Promoted by the Commercial Club and Governor William Spry, the first recorded airplane flight in Utah took place when barnstormer Paulhan roared into the skies over the state fairgrounds. The event was symbolic of the leading role the Commercial Club and its successor, the Salt Lake Chamber, played in developing aviation in Utah and the Mountain West.
On that day in 1910, Paulhan, a “daring little Frenchman” had just wowed throngs on the West Coast and brought his planes by rail to Salt Lake City. Promoters printed 100,000 tickets. While an estimated 10,000 looked on, Paulhan flew for approximately 10 minutes and 36 seconds above the city.
He “established a new world’s record, for he sailed to a height of approximately 4,600 feet, while his best previous performance was 4,165 feet above sea level, done at Los Angeles,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported. Because of the altitude of the city above sea level, the crowd saw the aircraft fly only about 300 feet above them.
The pilot was disappointed the he “couldn’t rise to a greater height, but the heavy biplane could not soar higher in the rarified atmosphere.” He hoped “to come back some day with a lighter machine and do some real highflying,”
He told the Deseret News that some sort of “freak” machine must be used at such altitudes before success will be achieved. The Commercial Club’s chief staff member, Secretary Joseph Caine, wrote: “We will look back upon this Sunday as a red-letter day in our lives.”
Within a year Utah had its first cinder-covered landing strip, located on a marshy area of Basque Flats west of the city. The same year, the “Great International Aviation Carnival” brought flying daredevils to Salt Lake City for midair competition.
By the close of World War I, Utah’s interest in aviation became more practical than spectacle. The use of planes during the war showed how aviation could benefit commerce and communication. On September 1, 1920, the first transcontinental airmail and air freight delivery arrived in Salt Lake City from New Brunswick, New Jersey, en route to the West Coast.
The Chamber aided in improving the landing field and hangar after the national postal route manager issued an ultimatum that threatened to move the landing site to Ogden. The Chamber organized the United States Air Mail Hangar Corporation to build the necessary hangar. Of the total $27,000 costs associated with the project, Chamber members collected $15,000 ($135,135 in 2002 funds) to construct the hangar. The field was named for John P. Woodward, an airmail pilot who died in a crash during a snowstorm on a Wyoming-Salt Lake City flight. Boxer Jack Dempsey participated in the official opening on December 21, 1920.
A year later, the Chamber secured the establishment in Salt Lake of the United States air division for national guard and reserve officers at Fort Douglas. The military air service erected a hangar on the post and used the parade grounds as a flying field for its three aircraft.
By 1924, The Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club of Salt Lake City assisted local airmail officials in appealing to the representatives in Congress to take favorable action on the bill appropriating $3 million to provide day and night air mail service from coast to coast. An eventual appropriation opened up the airmail market to private contractors.
The Chamber helped establish contractor Western Air Express Inc., which operated daily contract mail and passenger service between Salt Lake and Los Angeles. When the new company was organized the Chamber contracted for the construction of another hangar and subscribed $400 toward the total cost of its erection, which was $2,500. The Chamber’s aviation committee arranged the rental of additional ground at the airfield.
Just five weeks after beginning scheduled airmail operations, the Western Air Express, which eventually became Western Airlines, carried its first passengers. By the end of 1926 the company had carried 209 passengers at of profit of $1,029.
“Since its establishment, the Western Air Express Inc. has had almost phenomenal success proving to be the first paying commercial air venture in the world. The Chamber also cooperated with the Varney line, which operates in the Pacific Northwest and now made Salt Lake its eastern terminus. Salt Lake now ranks as the principal airmail center in the West, being the concentration and distributing point for all airmail coming from and destined to Los Angeles, San Francisco and the northwest,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported in 1927.
Despite the hazards of crossing the Mountain West, Woodward Field became the focal point of transcontinental travel in the central Rockies. While Utah’s Legislature passed some of the most progressive laws for commercial aviation of the time, passenger and air freight traffic continued to grow. By 1928, several aviation companies used Woodward Field for airmail activities. That year Salt Lake City was judged the second most important airmail aviation center in the nation behind Chicago, a distinction the city held until World War II.
The military’s presence also continued. The military used Salt Lake City as a stopover for virtually every flight over the northern Rockies before 1940. The military connection proved vital in the years ahead as did Chamber’s early impetus to nurture aviation.
As historian Roger D. Launius wrote: “Aviation in the West contributed to economic growth, provided good access to other cities and thereby a firm linkage to the mainstream of American society, and established a basis for attracting business and industry to the region.”
Sources: Roger D. Launius “Crossroads of the West: Aviation Comes to Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly, 58 (Spring 1990): 108-30. “Man Flies” in Don C. Woodward ed., Through Our Eyes (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1999). “Silver Anniversary Edition of The Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 11 February 1927, special section. Twila Van Leer “S.L. has played a lofty role in aviation history,” Deseret News, 7 May 1995. Will Bagley, “ ‘Little Frenchman’ Ushered Age of Flight Into Utah,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 31 December 2000 and Will Bagley, “High-Flying Stunt Dazzles Utah Crowd,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 7 January 2001