A Visit to Cleveland Airport in the 1930s
By the middle of the 1930s, Cleveland Municipal Airport (CLE) was over a decade old and remained a leader in the pioneering early days of commercial aviation, not only in the United States, but around the world.
The relative importance of the Cleveland area during this period may be surprising to those only familiar with its more recent history of population decline and poverty, industrial decay, and the loss of several airline hubs, including United's, twice (this is an aviation blog, after all), In the 1930 US Census, Cleveland had a bit over 900,000 residents and was the "Sixth City," ranking just after Los Angeles in terms of population!
Northeast Ohio had become an industrial powerhouse, a center for the steel, machinery, auto parts, and rubber (if you include neighboring Akron) industries, with busy railways and a bustling maritime port, as well as all the financial and legal services needed by those businesses.
It also was a center of the nascent aeronautical industry. The Cleveland Plain Dealer (April 21, 1929) noted, "An increase in aircraft manufacturing (including the Glenn L. Martin Airplane Co., [which soon moved to Baltimore, but was replaced by the less successful Great Lakes Aircraft Corp.], air lines operated, aerial services offered, the number of airports, airplane sales, private and business flying, the training of student pilots and the making of parts and accessories," as well as the soon-to-be-held National Air Races, all supported the contention that aviation was soon to take on a similarly important role as the city's other, more traditional industries.
These industries also attracted talent from around the world, both skilled and unskilled, particularly from the "Old Country" in Europe. Immigrants from Poland, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia, Slovenia and many more countries flocked to the vibrant metropolis on the shores of Lake Erie for economic opportunities and political freedom. A boom town like Cleveland required a fitting airport that kept pace with the technological and cultural changes that aviation was starting to bring about in the US.
Cleveland Municipal Airport, opened on July 1, 1925, continued to grow in importance and prominence. The airport opened its modern administration building and terminal in fall 1929. Air traffic had grown tremendously at Cleveland. In the Aircraft Yearbook for 1932 published by the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce, Cleveland ranked only after Newark and Philadelphia in the United States, and ahead of London, Berlin, and Paris in Europe, in terms of passenger traffic with over 72,000 passengers in 1931 (this represents about two-days' of passenger traffic today!). Cleveland was also the largest airport in the world by land area and had the greatest number of landings, too. with 54,750 in 1931. Over 2.9 million pounds of air mail were handled at the airport, almost double that of New York!
But very soon, the terminal proved to be inadequate for the growing amount of air traffic at CLE. An additional waiting room was built toward the field-side of the terminal in 1935 (see picture at top of article), but even this proved insufficient for the expanding air traffic: A description of the "airway station" (terminal) from Airports: Some Elements of Design and Future Development (by John Walter Wood, 1940), stated:
"The substantially built airway station, faced with a light-colored buff-brick and gray-stone trim, consists of a two-story block with one-story end wings, measuring overall 120 by 46 feet, to which a 60-by-50-foot addition has been built on the field side of the structure, which increases the cubic contents to about 250,000 cubic feet. The 60-by-36-foot waiting room is in the new wing, and the airport manager's office overlooking the field is on the floor above. The ticket offices and the small but well-appointed restaurant open off the old waiting room, which is now used as an entrance hall. The weather bureau, teletype office, radio room, and six small bedrooms are situated on the second floor of the main block, with the octagonal glass-enclosed control room located on the roof above. No well-worked-out separation of incoming and outgoing passengers and of baggage has been provided in the station, all passengers using a common semicircular "bull pen" facing the field, which has seven [or eight?] access gates to planes. The recent additions to the station can only be looked at as a temporary expedient to gain much-needed extra space, since the station is already too small for the heavy air traffic of the Cleveland Airport."
To handle continued growth, a $3.3 million Works Progress Administration (WPA) airfield expansion project was begun in November 1935, to increase the landing area and hard surfaces of the field and to install a much-needed drainage system. Also, in 1935, the air traffic control system, instituted a few years earlier by pioneering airport director, Major John Berry, was adopted by the US Department of Commerce and the airlines as the uniform control system for the entire country. By 1936, Cleveland handled 184,017 passengers, a more than tenfold increase from the 15,825 passengers served in 1929, when the terminal opened.
The new airfield mat was completed in 1937. It was built by more than 5,000 WPA workers over the course of a year and a few months. Used instead of traditional runways, the all-direction hard-surfaced landing mat measured approximately 1,800 feet by 1,300 feet and was constructed of 9-inch-thick asphalt and concrete.
With the expanded and greatly improved airfield of 1,040 acres, and a more spacious and modern terminal, 86 arrivals and departures of "huge transport planes" daily, as well as construction of several new and up-to-date hangars for airlines and corporations, and relocated grandstands for the very popular National Air Races on the western edge of the airport, Cleveland Municipal Airport was acclaimed as the largest commercial flying field in the world.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer documented the daily activities at CLE in a photo series on August 1, 1937. The newspaper stated, "The Cleveland Airport is a pioneer in the national movement of super-flying fields that can accommodate leviathans of the air now under construction." Most of the photos from that series are shared below, many with their quaint original captions (in quotation marks), along with several additional photos from 1936-37. These all come from the Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection. Enjoy!
Below is a drawing of the airfield at Cleveland Municipal Airport around 1940, from Airports: Some Elements of Design and Future Development by John Walter Wood. The new landing mat is clearly marked, and the relocated Air Race stands can be seen at the far west (left) of the field (likely in the approximate location of today's UPS facility). The Administration Building and gate bullpen is marked A, while the main row of hangars is clearly visible along the eastern (right) edge of the airport and the US Air Mail facility and Ohio National Guard hangar is at the southern edge of the airfield. The airport's light beacon is marked with an asterisk next to the Administration Building.
Eventually, the paved landing mat gave way to more traditional runways in the 1940s, but the outdated terminal continued in service for two more decades until 1956 (with another temporary extension tacked on to the front by American and Eastern in 1952), until the new terminal was opened.